One of life's greatest pleasures is a solitary meal. But in the age of the iPhone, we don’t really know how it feels to truly eat alone anymore.
Photo by Jim Pennuci via Flickr
Reservations are now being taken at Amsterdam's Eenmaal; a chic, stripped-back restaurant that serves only single diners. They claim to be the first of their kind; an eatery for the solitary.
Cashing in on the lone eater is, clearly, big business. According to a study by the Hartman Group, nearly half of all American adults eat most of their meals alone. In Britain, according to the Office for National Statistics, single people account for 7.7 million – nearly a third – of all households. Tap into the appetite of this demographic and you're laughing all the way to the bar.
Years ago I had to come off the contraceptive pill after watching a woman in surgical stockings and a hand-knitted cardigan eating a plate of egg and fries with a spoon. I didn't reconsider my contraceptive precautions because I found the whole episode to be so unbearably erotic. No. The sight of this lone woman, sat alone at a chipped formica table quietly and shyly shuffling through her plate of egg and fries, made me bawl for about 45 minutes.
Estrogen had clearly sent me to a place of insanity because people eating on their own do not deserve pity. Openly weeping at the sight of someone satisfying one of life's greatest needs and keenest pleasures completely misses the point. Why? Because to concentrate on what you're consuming, to be able to take in your eating environment alone, is one of the cornerstones of self-sufficiency. You are free from bullshit food shame, from other people's boring diet restrictions, from small talk, from having to meet someone so late you've eaten the napkins before the starters arrive and, most importantly, from compromise. You are an island.
"I'm not worried about anyone thinking I'm a sad bastard," food critic and keen lone diner Jay Rayner tells me. "I don't really care what anybody thinks in that regard." Course he doesn't. "One of my guiltiest pleasures is sloping off to London's Chinatown alone on a weekday lunchtime, sitting with my back to the door with a copy of The New Yorker and half a roast duck in the Four Seasons on Gerard Street. It's my idea of heaven." The pleasure can be enhanced, he says, by a good waiter who "will realize that you're not to be pitied; you're here because you're giving yourself pleasure. You're entertaining yourself."
If you're not used to eating alone, you might be tempted to overcompensate by having fake, intense text conversations, or even season your meal with some bogus phone calls. But you shouldn't. Of course, there are certain foods that lend themselves to solo dining better than others. As any woman who has ever eaten a banana, a cold sausage or licked an ice cream overlooked by a group of lascivious men can tell you, some foods are more conspicuous without company. However, such fear of food fellatio is, says Jay, a woman's curse. "That's something I will never know," he says. "Unless I was, I don't know, diving down on some clams or something."
As with all the best onanistic pleasures, eating alone is usually done one-handed; one to hold your book, newspaper, magazine or phone, the other to transport your meal between plate and face. Unless, of course, you're prepared to chow face-down in the sort of sticky, face-smearing meal that's simply too ridiculous to ever eat in front of anyone who isn't your mom or a sitophiliac. If you want to do that, you should probably hide. "I have a particular corner tucked away in Bodeans (a Mecca for ribs fans in London) where nobody can see me," says Jay. "Or there's a great oyster bar, now owned by Richard Corrigan, in Mayfair, where you can watch men engaged in mortal combat with serious oysters." Can someone go about rigging a CCTV camera up in this joint, please?
Despite all this talk of the pleasure of dining alone, for some it's a boring necessity. I'm currently cycling my way around New Zealand and have spent many hours in my spongy gusseted shorts watching middle-aged men in blue polyester pullovers silently munching through cheese rolls, sipping lukewarm coffee, and staring into the middle distance. They are the army of long-distance coach drivers without whom the hordes of shell-necklace, bongo-thumping, STD-spreading tourists would probably be spending their gap years in a layby outside the airport. If only.
"I don't think people realize how lonely this job is," says Dexter, a coach driver of over twenty years who I catch eating a meat and potato pie on the shore of Lake Wanaka. "In the daytime, you're busy, but at night you're all by yourself. You sneak away, have a quick meal and then go up to your room. You're away from home all the time, in a different room most nights, and wake up in the morning knowing you have to do it all over again. I'd always rather eat with other people, but often you can't."
The quickly-shovelled, carb-heavy re-fuelling of lone diners like Dexter is a world away from the sort of solo dining so fetishised by Ian Flemming in his James Bond novels. Just like the perfect hand of poker, driving through alpine passes and beating your opponent at golf, Fleming indulges in several lengthy descriptions of Bond's exquisite solo eating habits. In Diamonds Are Forever, following his fourth shower of the day (the man must have had the sweetest pits in the Northern Hemisphere), Bond heads "to Voisins, where he had two vodka martinis, Oeufs Benedict and strawberries," while reading the racing forecasts.
But in the age of the iPhone, we don't really know how it feels to truly eat alone any more. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, e-readers and Instagram, most of us will be eating lunch, holding in our hot, mayonnaise-y fingers access to more reading matter than the entire Library of Congress and more people than the UN General Assembly. It's become an act of discipline to sit and observe your food and the people around you rather than slipping back into the comforting company of constantly scrolling avatars and news sites updating in real time. But like most things involving a modicum of willpower, it's probably one worth savoring.
Last week, I found myself sitting alone, on a sun-bleached table outside Sweet Mother's Kitchen in Wellington, New Zealand, eating a basket of warm cornbread and drinking a beer. It was four in the afternoon and I had two hours to kill. Had I been tied to the winds to someone else's will, or self-conscious about eating alone, I might have had to dutifully walk around a museum, visited the pickled corpse of a giant squid, pretended to enjoy clothes shopping or—God forbid—get "pampered" somewhere. Instead, I sat in the sun, eavesdropped on an awkward date and pebble-dashed hot butter across my face, chest and thighs like a dog digging up a garden for bones. It was glorious. As Jay says, "eating alone should be dinner with someone you love," so if you can't feel full on your own, well, you're probably fucked.