A Table for Three: I, Me and Mine

A few weeks ago, I was examining the racks of wine at a liquor store when I came across a bottle from the Australian vintner Marquis Philips. The label on back of the bottle informed me that this wine was "made especially for you." Especially for me? Is this just an empty, silly-on-its-face promotional phrase or is Marquis Philips trying to capitalize on a trend?

There's some evidence to suggest the latter. One of the top-ten food trends identified by the Food Channel for 2010 is "the rise of the individual." According to the Food Channel, "It's part of the reason why we are making our own cheese, smoking our own meats, and making our own specialty desserts. Expect more attention to the individual ..."

There are several signs of the trend that the Food Channel calls "I, me, mine" -- even at upscale restaurants.

When chef-entrepreneur Charlie Palmer opened a restaurant in Dallas, he promised a mouth-watering menu and an attitude that catered to diners' personal wishes. "In Texas, we're going beyond free range," Palmer explained. "We're into free will." Individual diners have the flexibility to pair the sides they prefer with the entrée they've ordered. "Why shouldn't we let people choose sides," he said.

Many other restaurants are taking similar steps to cater to diners' whims and wishes. This is a refreshing change from the "no substitution" days that made movie viewers sympathize with Jack Nicholson's frustrated character in the 1970 film Five Easy Pieces. His request for a side order of toast was repeatedly denied by a stern waitress at a diner.

These days, most dining establishments are catering to individual customers in several ways. One example is the growing number of menus that take a "tapas" approach, offering appetizer-sized dishes that allow a diner to taste a variety of foods instead of choosing only two or three courses. And a lot of menus include vegan, gluten-free and other dishes that address the preferences or nutritional needs of diners who were once overlooked.

At least one reason why restaurants seem much more interested in pleasing the individual diner is that they're seeing more parties of one these days. With households getting smaller in recent decades, it's no wonder that offers tips to restaurateurs on "how to attract and keep solo diners." And Las Vegas Weekly's readers' food awards include the category of "best place to dine alone."

But the "I, me, mine" trend isn't entirely new. In fact, the seeds of this movement were planted decades ago.

During the 1970s, Burger King tried to distinguish itself from McDonald's by airing TV commercials with a catchy tune whose lyrics included: "Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don't upset us . . ." The ads closed with a chorus singing, "Have it your way." Today, more than 30 years later, the same four words are featured prominently on the fast-food outlet's website.

Paul Newman was also determined to have it his way. During a dinner date in the 1950s with his future wife Joanne Woodward, the actor picked up the salad he was delivered and headed in a strange direction. "He took an already oiled salad to the men's room," recalled Woodward, "washed it clean, and returned to the table to do things right, with oil cut by a dash of water."

Having witnessed her beau's obsession with the perfect vinaigrette, it surely came as no shock to her that salad dressing became the first of many upscale foods that her husband sold under the label of Newman's Own.

Whether the cater-to-the-individual trend is new or not so new, it will be tough to turn back this tide.

Frederick the Great learned the hard way that eating habits are not easily changed, even by royal decree. In a 1777 proclamation, the Prussian ruler urged his subjects to abandon their "disgusting" coffee-drinking habits and turn to one of Frederick's favorite concoctions: beer soup -- made of beer, sugar, salt, cream, flour, egg yolks and spices. As the proclamation explained, "the king does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be depended upon to endure hardship or beat his enemies in the case of the occurrence of another war."

However, Frederick the Great's decree did not curb the German joy for java. Four years later, Frederick imposed a royal monopoly on coffee beans. If he couldn't dissuade his subjects from drinking the stuff, at least he could profit from it.