I’ve long maintained that there’s nothing quite like eating out alone. I don’t mean this in the there’s-nothing-like-it-better-than-sex sense. I mean that there’s nothing like it as in nothing else compares. I’m a food critic by profession and a glutton by disposition. When I hanker for a certain kind of food, particularly food prepared by someone besides me, my inclination is to go for it. I’ve generally consulted my girlfriend before making any culinary decisions, because if there really is something that rivals sex in the enjoyability category, it’s breaking bread with someone whom you truly love. Still, it’s been no biggie when my girlfriend’s been unavailable. Because, as I say, there’s nothing like shutting out the world and focusing on the task at hand: Eating. Alone. In public. By choice.
Which brings me to my problem: My girlfriend’s moved to the Midwest, making her unavailability fairly constant. Sure, I’ve got friends. Interesting friends, even. But the thing about eating out with friends is that it requires advance planning, and I’m a crummy planner. This was never a problem when my girlfriend was around—she’s organized. Dining solo hasn’t been the same since she split. In fact, it’s not even close. It’s no longer voluntary. There’s still nothing else that compares, but now it’s because nothing else feels quite so fucking pathetic.
To demonstrate, I decided to take a cue from a colleague at the now-defunct Long Island Voice and conduct some controlled research into the phenomenon of public aloneness. The experiment works like this: Book table for two at fancy restaurant. Buy flower to bring for date. Don’t bring date. Observe staffers as they shower you with pity for being stood up.
I choose the Old Angler’s Inn for my test site mainly because of its reputation for romance. The century-old farmhouse-cum-restaurant is the kind of place people go to get engaged, so I figure the staff must go through some kind of sensitivity training just in case one of its customers’ proposals is turned down. Compared with treating that kind of heartbreak, catering to my sorry ass should be a bubble bath. Or so goes my thinking.
I arrive a little late and feign amazement that I’m the first in my party to arrive. After climbing the spiral staircase to my table, I place a single antique rose over the plate next to mine. Knowing that I’m going to get stiffed makes me neurotic. I find myself trying to earn the respect of the all-male staff. I order a half-bottle of decent bordeaux. If I’m going to be a goob in the waiters’ eyes, I figure that at least they’ll think I’m a goob with good taste. Or something.
I am unprepared for the shame I feel in being less than straight with the staff—tricking sympathy out of strangers: how cheap. And the room is murder: just me and one other couple. With such a sparse crowd, I can’t help but feel as if I’m on stage, and I’m surprised to find out that getting stood up is dispiriting even when it’s not real. What’s worse: having a date who doesn’t show, or just plain not having a date? At least the no-show can phone with an excuse.
“Excuse me, sir.” My waiter’s handing me back the wine list. He’s out of the half-bottles of bordeaux. The only other available half-bottles are champagne (too expensive) and chardonnay (I’ve got my eye on venison), and the full bottles are out of the question given that I’m, well, alone and driving. I ask for a red by the glass. There’s one choice: merlot. Clearly not a place that sees a lot of solo artists.
Active people-watching is one of the pleasures of eating out alone. But when there are only two people to watch, people-watching isn’t really people-watching anymore; it’s eavesdropping. So I compromise: To look occupied, I write in my notebook; in order to have something to write in my notebook, I eavesdrop.
Back when I first started this job, back before my girlfriend was my “girlfriend” and way before she moved to the Midwest, I did the eavesdrop/write-in-the-notebook thing a lot. I used to get whole columns out of it. The deja vu isn’t pleasurable. After 15 minutes, my waiter suggests that I order. “If she comes, we’ll take her order,” he suggests, nodding toward the empty seat with the flower in front of it. After he rounds the corner behind me, I hear him announce, “He doesn’t know if she’s coming or not.”
The haricots verts salad with artichokes and truffle dressing is a relief, and not just because it’s good. Whatever tension was in the air is released with its arrival. The hard part about getting stood up is deciding when to accept that whoever was supposed to be coming isn’t coming. Even though I know that the person who was supposedly meeting me doesn’t exist, it feels good to have moved on. And I think my waiters feel likewise. Just before my entree arrives, someone removes my date’s place setting without saying a word. It’s like the moment after a catastrophe, when the Coast Guard formally switches the mission from search and rescue to search and recover. Harsh reality rules from then on, which in this case makes it easier for me to enjoy the bloody venison and its subtle chestnut sauce. I take pleasure in realizing that I don’t find the couple’s conversation terribly interesting. (“I won’t vote Republican until the party stands up to the radical right.” Etc.) It’s the way dining out alone used to be.
“Are you all right, sir?” my waiter asks. His accent is the kind people expect to accompany $30 entrees: surely European, probably French, sharp as Gorgonzola.
“I’m fine,” I say, hoping he won’t waste his sympathy on me. “The food was great.”
“Your friend never showed up?”
“Nah. But it’s all right.”
He walks away with his hands clasped behind his back. I’d guess that he does feel a little bad for me. And it’s nice, frankly. As I get up to leave, he says, “It was a pleasure serving you, sir.” I tell him that the pleasure was mine and leave the rose where it is.
Old Angler’s Inn, 10801 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac, (301) 365-2425.
Basil can’t touch Old Angler’s in the ambiance department. But the storefront’s warm and modern, and its Thai food does have a certain sex appeal. Larb gai and spicy squid salad are both tart and feisty, and the crispy whole flounder is a thing of beauty. Its bean sauce is full of vegetables, which settle nicely between the cross-cuts of crisp flesh. And if you happen to bring a real live date, keep in mind that there’s enough fish in a single order to feed two.
Basil, 1608 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 944-8660. —Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.