Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Table for One


I’m pretty pumped up about the fact that this blog post also appeared on the cover of The Tennessean’s Taste section! Big thanks to Keith Miles for the photos and Margot for letting us stage the shoot.


A pleasure I’ve recently come to know is dining out alone. I’m not talking about a grab-n-go airport meal or quick lunch on a workday. I mean a proper, sit-down meal at a destination restaurant solo.

Part of the pleasure is being content to push myself out of my comfort zone, getting over whatever social pressures (real or perceived) exist telling us not to show up alone. I find a meal by myself in a public place a time to be alone with my thoughts, cell-phone free, ordering just what I want. If the circumstances are right, it can feel like a mental date with yourself.

I first realized I enjoyed this experience last summer when my husband was away on a backpacking trip for a few weeks. One night, bored with eating alone at home and not in the mood to coordinate a meal with a friend, I walked to a local restaurant I hadn’t yet tried. I took a magazine, ordered a beer, and casually chatted with the bartender in between articles. I enjoyed the experience so much more than I thought I would. It was almost therapeutic.

Since that first meal, I’ve found myself traveling alone on a couple of business trips, first to D.C. and then to Dallas. Having not spent much time in either city, and as a person who enjoys trying new restaurants, I was motivated to spend my evenings exploring. Armed with only my smartphone, I cross-referenced local culture magazine restaurant recommendations with my Yelp and LocalEats apps, then navigated my way to the chosen spot. Making the meal into a sort of adventure like this is really fun.annakate2

I make it a point not to use my smartphone during the meal. Perusing social networks or checking email sort of ruins the experience. You’re not really alone that way. It’s nice to just sit there, disconnected, present in the moment. I don’t think our culture does enough of that. The solitude reminds of being on an airplane, when electronic devices are turned off and you’re forced to be alone with your thoughts. I do some of my best thinking on planes and often use the time to journal. (Although, with the increasing prevalence of wifi-enabled planes and talk of adding cell service, I fear this final frontier of disconnectivity isn’t long for this world.)

Another great perk is ordering exactly what you want. When dining out with my husband, we often order everything to share, so I choose my dishes with both our tastes in mind. There’s an indulgence about ordering completely selfishly. Along those lines, I’ve found I often order dessert when I’m out alone, something I seldom do otherwise.

I had one of my favorite dining alone experiences recently in D.C. I ended up at a Spanish tapas bar within walking distance from my hotel. I sat at the bar, and the friendly bartender kept me company. I had salt cod crudo, a fresh grapefruit salad, a couple of Spanish cheeses, and a cheesecake featuring Manchego cheese, a Spanish specialty, for dessert. It was a totally “Annakate” order, and I loved it.

Before writing this article, I chatted with a friend about the subject of dining alone and realized it’s only enjoyable if it’s by choice. She’s in sales, and eating alone reminds her of sales trips solo in suburbs and office parks around the country. I can see her point.

With about a dozen solo meals under my belt, I’ve learned a few tricks to dining out alone. First, atmosphere is everything. You don’t want a place that’s too stuffy or too empty because you’ll draw attention to yourself, and that can be uncomfortable. A bar seat is my favorite, especially if it’s a chef’s bar or open kitchen so I can watch the food being made and maybe make some light conversation with the staff behind the bar. You’ll have more peace if choose a table, and that can be nice if you want some time to concentrate.

Waitstaff is another consideration. A seasoned server will know how attentive to be. Similarly, a friendly bartender can keep you company and connect you with others if you’re in the mood to chat.

These are a few of my favorite spots around town. Where are your faves?

  • Margot: The bar’s location near the door creates a great perch for people watching.
  • Silly Goose: This place is constantly packed, but the small bar overlooking the kitchen gives a solo diner a faster option.
  • Lockeland Table: Lots of solo seating options here. Choose from two bars (pizza and wet bar), communal table or patio.
  • Park Cafe: Intimate atmosphere and seasoned waitstaff to make you feel comfortable.
  • Burger Up: Lively bar with a friendly vibe.

The next time you have the opportunity, take the plunge and try having a meal alone. It might surprise you how much you like it.


One Response to “Table for One”

  1. 1

    angela@spinachtiger — May 21, 2014 @ 6:00 pm

    I used to travel a lot before I got married and found myself in NYC alone. Dining by myself. I would often eat at nice restaurant at the bar, all pre-smart phones, and I would meet such interesting people.

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