Dining Solo in Manhattan

November 3, 2011  •  New York, North America, Travel

I arrived in New York this afternoon to visit my son. He was sweet enough to leave work early to meet me at his apartment, but had a networking event that left me to fend for myself for dinner. Normally my blog posts are filled with photos – and I was tempted to pull out the camera to start shooting today. But I had a better idea – let me see just how well I can paint a picture of my evening without a single photo at all.

I started out by trying to fill time. There’s a Sprint store very close to here and I waited patiently (a skill I don’t seem to have at home) for 15 minutes until someone could check inventory just to tell me they are sold out of every iPhone they offer. Isn’t that something they would know without wandering around the back for that long? I relinquished my place in line, and moved on.

Ooooooh…there’s a Banana Republic right here also – and they have an end of the season sign out front advertising savings up to 40%! There’s a Banana Republic in every city, including my own – but you know how you never have time to shop at home? The sizing goddesses were smiling on me and I found two cute ruffled cardigan sweaters – one in light purple and one in, of course, black – in a petite size that works, a small miracle in my world of clothes shopping. And on sale. And the staff was friendly. I love that kind of shopping experience, don’t you?

With my shopping complete, I had no choice but to face the prospect of dinner alone. I’ve never been much good at this. And food of all things – I love nothing more than to set out to conquer a meal with friends like Susan, one of my oldest and best friends, so that we can ooh and ahhh over every bite. Not going to happen tonight, as I’m solo for the night.

My son had mentioned a hole in the wall wine bar on the Upper East Side (where he lives) called Cavattapo. Walking around with an iPad, feeling a bit silly as I pulled up the listing, lost somewhere on Second Ave. near 89th, I had that feeling for a minute that I wished I weren’t alone for the evening. I passed the wine bar, deemed it too small and intimate to eat and drink in solitude, and kept moving. In fact I went completely back to where I started, Cafe D’Alsace, on the corner of Second Ave. and 88th, literally a half block from my son’s apartment.

I’ve been here before, but only for a drink. My husband and I met up with our son in June, just after he had started a new job, and we sat over drinks at one of the cute outside cafe tables, sipping champagne, beer, and Jack and Coke (you figure out which drink goes with which person), while he excitedly told us all about things in his life. I had made a mental note then to return here for dinner – the menu looked very French, in a good way, and of course, there was decent Champagne on the menu.

Good evening – how may we help you? A table for just one please. (As I said that, in my head I was asking why I had said “just”, as if my dining alone were a pity.) Right this way please! Is this table OK? Yes, it’s perfect.

And it was. I was seated with my back to the annoying part of a restaurant – the waiter stand, the swinging kitchen door, the bus boy station – and my view was instead of the main dining room and bar, spread out before me, lightly glowing under candles strategically placed on each small cafe table. Above the bar, vintage French bar bottles of varying colors provided a feeling of warmth and comfort.

I turned my attention to the menu, making myself order slowly, so as not to force a 20 minute meal service just because I was alone. I ordered wine first – a Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rose sparking wine from France. And I didn’t order my food until that had been served and I had enjoyed a couple of sips of it.

Ordering and eating slowly are not the only challenges of dining solo. There’s the question of just what do you do WHILE you eat? Stare dumbly at your plate? Let your eyes wander the room, in a constant roving pattern so that nobody thinks you are staring at them? Or worse yet, takes pity on you? Or read?

I opted for a combination of all three. Armed with my iPad Nook book (Loving Frank – great if you haven’t already read it) set on the night setting (so it didn’t cast an eerie techno glow on my face to draw attention to my solitude), I read a bit, and then it hit me.

I can actually eavesdrop quite effectively in this position. People just assume I am reading, and I can hear everything going on around me. The two lovely young Irish women next to me, who chatted the entire time in their lyrical accents, had no idea I was listening to every word. I almost teared up over the discussion of how much they missed being at home (in Ireland) for Christmas with their families. I almost asked what they meant when one of them said something would have never been like that if she had married an Irish guy instead of an American. What do you mean? How are those roles so very different from one culture to the next? And I nearly jumped up to high five her for moral strength as one of them discussed the battle brewing over whether she should be “forced” to suck it up and head to her in-laws for Thanksgiving, when she would be home caring for a very young newborn.

Lest you wonder if I’m completely nuts, I wasn’t just sitting there the entire time. I had found Moules Frites on the menu, and I was busy demolishing a huge bucket of mussels and the largest basket of crispy fries I’ve seen in a long time. I could have pushed them away at any time, but why? I savored every last morsel, partially for the culinary enjoyment, and partially because I couldn’t part from the conversation.

When it was clear I couldn’t keep licking my fingers, the frites long gone and my last sip of wine dwindling, I hailed the waitress for the check. As I stood up to leave, I leaned in to the two young women and told them how much I loved catching snippets of their conversation. That I had visited Ireland last year for the first time and fell in love. That I couldn’t wait to go back. Oh, and good luck with the baby. I could have said so much more. But I had to remind myself that their dinner conversation was just that – theirs, not mine. I was just the diner seated solo next to them who happened to luck out.

I managed to stay at the restaurant for nearly 90 minutes, and I’m pretty sure that’s my record for dining solo. By the time I left the place was packed with friends, couples, business meetings, siblings. But as I looked around, I don’t think I saw another solo diner. And as I headed towards the door, I reflected on the experience. I think I just might be over the fear and stress about dining alone. Tonight was just lovely.


2 Comments  •  Comments Feed

  1. Lea Ann says:

    This is just a great post Michele. And because I know you, I could vividly picture the whole solo outing. Great description of the restaurant and the evening. For some reason I even had a vision of what the two Irish ladies looked like. I don’t think I’ve ever dined out solo .. but most certainly have lunched. Sushi works good for that, the sushi bar guys keep you occupied.

  2. Joan Nova says:

    I’m a visual person and hesitated when I read ‘no photos’, but I’m happy I stayed around and read the words. All of them. You’ve got a gift. You took a photo without a lens. I thoroughly enjoyed this post.

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