When I was eight years old, my family celebrated some occasion by dining in a fancy San Francisco restaurant. Though that restaurant has long since closed, one thing has always stayed with me. Sitting next to our table was a gentleman having dinner alone.
He was amused by my young family of rowdy boys dressed up for dinner out, and chatted with my parents. He mentioned he was on a business trip. I remember feeling so sorry for the poor guy eating all by himself.
And I still think of that stranger today, since I've noticed a new phenomenon in restaurants: more and more tables of people eating alone. Of course, in this digital age, nobody is ever really alone. Recently at a trendy bistro, a man sitting next to me was having a lively conversation across the table with a video phone face balanced on the opposite chair. I wonder what restaurants think of these digital dining companions who order nothing, but share the restaurant experience. Will there soon be selfie surcharge, like a corkage fee?
There are a lot of great things about eating alone in a restaurant: no one to criticize your table manners, yammer on about stuff you're not interested in, or point out there are 800 calories in dessert. And eating alone in a restaurant is definitely not boring, between people watching and eavesdropping. But dining in a restaurant all by yourself takes some self-confidence, and I admire the aplomb of people who can be their own date for dinner. Although one of the solo strategies is to frantically text or read while dining - few seem to be able to just to sit there, chewing, instead of ordering to-go.
A study found a third of American dinners are consumed without company. But most of us feel weird going out to dinner all by ourselves. In a city filled with great restaurants, no time to cook and no one at home to cook for, why should there still be a stigma about dining out alone? That single diner at the next table over wasn't necessarily stood up by her date, she's just comfortable enough to go out for dinner on her own.
I always thought a restaurant was an experience to share. But looking at all those happy dinner parties of one, I'm re-thinking my idea that alone equals lonely. So bon appetit to those enjoying a solitary supper in public. One day I might even join you dining alone, together, in a fancy restaurant.
Table for one, please.
With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.
Richard Swerdlow is a teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District.