Eating alone, if it has to happen, is best celebrated. Copious amounts of vino locale however, in the broad light of day on a travel assignment in Ravenna once sent me into odd existential paroxysms of self-consciousness: that we die alone was confirmed as the waiter whipped away the second set of place settings with an expression of ‘non si fa’ (translation: it’s just not done). Women in Italy aren’t expected to dine alone. Italian men will regularly do so, in fact, they make a point of it. That delectable Sicilian – Inspector Montalbano (BBC4) happily digests solo, even aggressively defending his right to do so in the famous pasta coi broccoli sequence below, which translates rather literally as: “I’m eating pasta with broccoli, who is it that breaks (my balls)?”
As a food reviewer, dining companions are not always a guarantee and restaurants will (albeit rarely) stipulate one customer only and last weekend was no exception after my companion fell ill. It was a formal lonesome experience, punctuated by stiff napkins, a sea view and some curious glances. I would enact certain routines with complete confidence – tea in the lounge and others, such as choosing the right table among a catwalk of couples, with rather less. Subsequently, I came up with a few rules for dining out alone:
Rule 1: Dress glamorously. Chanel may have worn nothing but perfume to bed, wear everything to dinner, alone. Sad-loner-no- mates becomes object-of-fascination.
Rule 2: Engage with your waiter or waitress right from the start, some banter will relax both you and them. Take the humble position and laugh at your lone self (at least then, if someone else does, you are one step ahead): “Just me tonight then!” (cue: uncomfortable laughter but at least then, you won’t have waiters asking if you are waiting for someone).
Rule 3: Don’t read a book. Take some reading material if you’re feeling self-conscious such as a broadsheet (particularly good for breakfast) or a magazine but reading the likes of Sartre’s Nausea only works in Skins and if you are a beautiful teenager without a clue. If you have to do anything, write notes, especially if you are doing a review anyway.
Rule 4: DO ask for recommendations – I often get dishes wrong on my own without a dining partner to bounce ideas off and my inner raving carnivore becomes suppressed by my outer ethical vegetarian. What sane reviewer in company would not be given a hard time for ordering Rocket Four Ways? (ahem and yes it was a massive green anti-climax).
Rule 5: Smile. Not in an overly ample I’ve–just-had–my-mouth-slashed–by-the-Joker kind of way, but more an acknowledging crescent if you catch someone’s eye or at the waiter as they serve you. You’ll appear content.
Rule 6: Express an opinion on the food, admittedly mine was rather negative regarding the plate of rocket manifestations but it’s better to have one than not.
Rule 7: Eat dessert but don’t linger for tea or coffee, order them in your room if necessary and leave with an air of self-importance, ideally a ‘sweep’: you have something else better to do (like feign excitement in your room about the range of Twinings bags nestled next to a kettle belonging to a hobbit while pondering the point of cardboard slippers which look like over-sucked dugs, but no-one else need know this).
Rule 8: stare enigmatically into the distance in between forkfuls, think smouldering Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient with bowel issues for major levels of intensity: you are simply too profound for company.
Rule 9: break rule 7 if it is a busy hotel and you can sit at the bar and flirt over a digestivo – you may find yourself on the other side of lonely if you make a special friend and can offer them Twinings and slippers later.
Rule 10: cultivate an air of nonchalance and wear it like an Hermèsscarf in a wind tunnel, wafting, over-priced and colourful but not for everyone dahling. Works wonders for anxiety.