Table for One, Please

I thought I would write about an experience that I found, well, uncomfortable.

Dining alone.

I had to travel for work for a period of eight months to a town in suburban Maryland. It involved leaving my home on a Sunday night, staying in a Hampton Inn until Friday afternoon, and then I would head home for the weekend. And repeat.

Well, a girl’s gotta eat.  So I explored the area, only to find that I was working in the equivalent of a giant office park. No downtown, no cool local watering holes, just an endless amount of franchised restaurants. 5 Guys Burgers, Panera Bread, Bonefish Grill. You get the drift.

So, I would go in, and ask for a table for one.  And I was almost always met with “Will anyone be joining you?”  Nope.  Then you would get either the “isn’t that sad” look from the host, or the “what is up with you?” look.  I felt self conscious and awkward.  I could feel other people glancing my way.  I would order, eat and get out as fast as I could.

Semi-fast food places like Panera Bread weren’t as awkward, since you  basically serve yourself.  It seemed more acceptable to eat alone in places like that. But again–order, eat, leave.

Grub Hub offered some opportunity to at least get something delivered to my hotel.  The only catch was that it was usually a $20 minimum order for a delivery. That was usually more food than I needed. But I would order enough for dinner, and have something to bring for lunch the next day.  Tolerable, but limited as to selection.

I finally got so tired of eating out alone that I resorted to going to Trader Joe’s and buying frozen dinners that I could heat up in my hotel room microwave.  Sad…..

But here is the dilemma. As  unpleasant as it is to eat out alone, what would I have done if a person  asked me to join them, since they were alone as well?

Thought 1–serial killer, rapist, mugger

Thought 2–weird, chatty type who collects used paper napkins

Thought 3–I have been chosen by the locals to see if I will accept. The winner gets a free beer.

As you can see, none of the thoughts have positive outcomes. I am a solitary female in a strange city, so no way am I accepting any invitation. And isn’t that a shame. It is a shame that I can’t feel comfortable enough to accept what might be  a nice gesture from someone who knows what it is like to eat alone.  It’s a shame that my first instinct is suspicion. It is sad to be so cynical about what you perceive a person’s intentions to be.

So here is what I did.  Instead of withdrawing into my Kindle, I decided to chat up the wait staff, hosts, owners, anyone I could. And I mean chat up. My favorite experience with being the chatterbox was at an Indian restaurant. I told the host how much I adored Indian cuisine.  I asked the waiter for recommendations based on what he liked the best, not what the typical American diner would like. He grinned, and gladly shared his favorites with me, telling me all about the spices and flavors. There were Indian wines on the menu, and I didn’t know that India had vineyards. I asked about them, and the owner came to my table and told me all about how India was now delving into wine and starting vineyards.  He gave me a glass on the house.

At a Portuguese restaurant, I ordered in broken Portuguese (I learned  it a long time ago  for a trip to Portugal, and still can speak it a bit). The waiter and owner  loved the fact that I attempted to order in their language. We spoke about the traditional items on the menu. My favorite is Porco a’ Alentejana–braised pork with clams. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it; it is outstanding. They asked about my travels, and I spoke fondly of their country and how I loved the regional variety of the Portuguese cuisine.  They sat at my table, and we shared an after dinner cocktail.

Here is the beauty in this. By engaging with the owners and staff, I was no longer solitary. There was conversation, and I learned new things. By being curious and open, I was on the receiving end of the passions of the people who worked there. People who love what they do, what they create,also love to talk about it.  And they so appreciate someone who shows  an interest beyond the standard “what is your house special?” question. And, because the staff was working, no one was going to follow me to my hotel.  A plus.

I don’t have that job any more, so I don’t  travel for work. I will most likely never set foot in those restaurants again. But because I made the decision to be outgoing, I gave myself the gift of a good dining experience.

So, if you find yourself  having to dine alone, try being the chatterbox.  Even if you are in an Olive Garden, ask your waitperson something. They are probably a local student working their way through school, or a parent trying to make ends meet.  Everyone has a story to tell. And if you show them some interest beyond the Perkins Pancake menu, you may find yourself learning  more about the world.

It’s worth a shot.  Beats eating frozen dinners in the Hampton Inn.

Porco a’ Alentejana(courtesy Jean Anderson from “The Food of Portugal” cookbook)

Here is the recipe for the braised pork with clams.  It is easy to make, and it is really, really delicious.  You have to marinate the pork for 24 hours, so plan ahead. Enjoy!

Makes 6 servings

  • 2 1/2 pounds boneless pork loin cut into 1 inch cubes
  • 2 TB of a paste made from- 1 peeled and crushed garlic clove, 1 tsp of kosher salt, 1 TB of paprika, 1 TB of good olive oil
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 2 large bay leaves, crumbled
  • 2 TB olive oil
  • 1 TB lard or shortening
  • 1 large yellow onion peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 1 large garlic clove peeled and minced
  • 2 TB tomato paste
  • 18 small littleneck clams in the shell, well scrubbed and purged of grit.
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  1. Rub the pieces of pork well all over with the paste and place in a large shallow  nonmetallic bowl; add the wine and bay leaves, cover and marinate about 24 hours, turning occasionally.
  2. Heat the olive oil and lard in a large heavy kettle or pot over high heat until ripples appear on the bottom-the fat should almost smoke. Lift the pork  from the marinade (save the marinade to add later) and brown in three batches, transferring  the pieces to a large heat-proof bowl as they brown.
  3. When the pork is browned, dump the onion and garlic into the kettle, lower the heat to moderate and stir fry for 3 to 4 minutes until limp and golden.
  4. Turn the heat to low, cover and steam the onion and garlic for 20 minutes.
  5. Blend the tomato paste into the reserved marinade, return the pork  and the marinade to the kettle and adjust the heat so that the marinade barely bubbles, then cover and cook for 1 1/2 hours until the pork is fork tender.
  6. Bring the liquid up to a gentle boil and lay the clams on top of the pork, cover and cook another 30 minutes or until the clams open.  Discard any unopened clams.
  7. Season to taste with salt and pepper and ladle into large soup bowls. Serve with a chewy crusty bread and a crisp green salad.  Pair with a rich red wine.

 

 

 

 

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6 thoughts on “Table for One, Please

  1. You are so right about the dining alone experience. While the world is your oyster “so to speak” in getting to chose whatever you wish, the experience is so tainted with assumptions from the server and the guest. As Americans we are very judgmental and suspicious. Its less of s stigma in Europe. Who doesnt want some sort of a human connection with their meal?…no one from where I sit.

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    1. You are so right. Why can you hang out in a cafe’ in Europe for hours and have a great experience but here in the US you perceive everyone as a threat? And its only getting worse…

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  2. Great post, Jeannette, about one of the most fun things about dining or traveling alone! As an introvert who enjoys dining alone as much as I enjoy dining with others, I haven’t really experienced the “what’s wrong with you” vibe from servers or restaurant staff. But I have had some wonderful experiences of the kind you mentioned in your post. In Calgary, BC years ago, I was in the revolving restaurant at the top of the Calgary Tower. It was early for lunch and the restaurant was almost empty, so I struck up a conversation with my server. He ended up just hanging out by my table and telling me all about the different things we were seeing as the restaurant revolved and the view changed, and the different parts of the city and surrounding countryside. A really fun and memorable experience!

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    1. Lauren, your experience is a perfect example of what I am talking about. We can have a great time just chatting someone up, and also get some great tips about the locale. Thanks!

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