“Julio! Uno!” That was the waiter who greeted me at Barcelona’s Bar Cañete screeching my dining status to his colleague in the bowels of the restaurant, and indeed to the entire street. Fortunately, solo dining doesn’t bother me. As a food writer, it comes with the territory. And sometimes, frankly, I prefer eating alone. You see, I enjoy my own company. I’m quite good friends with me, and I’m exceptionally good friends with food, so our table always gets on like a house on fire: no bickering over who sits where, sulking over lack of menu options, or negotiations over who eats, or pays, what.
Thankfully, Australian restaurant staff tend to be fairly discrete about a diner’s solo status: there’s certainly no bellowing about it for the whole joint to hear. They’ll usher you in, park you somewhere appropriate, then let you get on with what it is you came to do. However, it helps to have a few solo dining strategies up your sleeve – or under your napkin. My modus operandi goes like this:
1) Dine early, so i can get in and out before every man and his wife and extended family rock up for dinner and i end up feeling like a black pudding at a vegetarian picnic.
2) Take something to do: a book to read, an article to write – anything that helps me avoid making eye contact with loved up couples who cast pitying glances my way. (Don’t pity me: I have partner, and also an independent life.)
3) Choose a restaurant amenable to solo dining. The latest fad of stools at a bar that front the kitchen kill two birds with one stone: i can meld into an informal dining scene and kill time eyeballing highly skilled chefs at work.
4) Go somewhere I really want to be: a new restaurant, a favourite local, somewhere with a particular dish I want to try – it makes the whole solo dining thing much more bearable.
However, strategies doesn’t always work. In Barcelona recently I dined so early one night – 7.30pm, which is practically siesta time for Spaniards – that i was one only six people in the joint, which had the advantage of tremendously personalised service, but the disadvantage of having the atmosphere of an alcohol-free wake. It was tremendous tapas at the trendy Ohla Gastrobar, though, I highly recommend it.
In Paris, the week before, I had so many “things to do” on the table at Auberge Flora – Lonely Planet, iPad with Bluetooth keyboard, notebook in case in wanted to ditch digital and go back to my journalistic roots – that there was a ridiculous scramble to clear the decks when the two-tiered tapas plate and entourage – bread basket, olives, plate of ham, and glass of wine – were delivered. Multi-tasking at dinner can have its pitfalls.
On another occasion, I’d been advised by a Barcelonan food journalist – the adorable and insanely knowledgable Francesc Castro – to sample paella with razor clams at La Barraca (which has been open just a month) if i ventured to the city’s beach. I strutted in with my tan and my body cracks full of sand to learn that paella is only served for a minimum of two people (19 euro a head). Make it for one person “and it’s just not as good” the restaurant manager assured me. Disappointed, i explained my predicament: I was a solo diner with my heart set on this dish. “I’ll ask the chef if he’ll make it for one,” the manager eventually said. Two minutes later he returned: “No.The chef says he’ll only make a two-person paella for you … but you only have to pay for one.”
Maybe solo dining strategies do work, after all.
Note: The Food Sage only ate half of the paella!