The Art Of Dining Solo

"Just one?"

I wish restaurant hostesses wouldn't use this phrase.

"Yes." I say, inserting an upbeat smile.

I follow her to the far corner of the restaurant. "How's this?" she asks. It's a half-booth with one bench instead of two. As I slide in, it feels a little cramped, like a study carrel in a library. I can hear people chatting and laughing all around me, but the sides of the vinyl booths are too high to see anyone.

It's perfect.

It's perfect because unlike women born after the moon landing, I'm still not so sure about eating alone in a restaurant. Eating alone was something I used to do regularly on business trips, but that ended a few years ago. In work mode, I would still be wearing a good suit and expensive shoes, always toting my phone and laptop and wasting no time in setting them out on the table. Eating was secondary. My message to anyone in the restaurant who cared (which was no one): I am working, not really eating alone.

But this was different. I was in jeans and a sweater. I'd finished a shopping trip in my old neighborhood, just in time to discover a fierce thunderstorm rolling in. It seemed a little dangerous to drive even the short distance home, and I knew this restaurant -- a famous local ribs joint -- very well. I'd been here with my husband when I was married. I'd been here lots of times with my kids when they were in high school.

Never alone.

"Waiting out the storm?" my waitress casually asks as she takes my drink order.

"Oh, yes!" I answer. (Translation: "I would never eat alone without a good reason. I have millions of adoring friends and family who dine with me often.) Every time she comes back to check on me, I talk about the storm as if Hurricane Katrina is howling outside.

It's silly, and I know it. But I equate eating alone in a restaurant with being dateless for the prom, passed over for the job, or walking out of the ladies' room with toilet paper coming out of your panty hose. For all the ways I think my age has made me comfortable in my own skin, I'm still waiting for the restaurant fear to go away.

I thought about how ridiculously shamed I felt when the hostess said, "Just one?" So a week later, I decided to take it on full tilt - Don Quixote style. I went back. Then I started going back once a month. And after a few visits, this last vestige of feeling embarrassment for no good reason left.

"One," I always say, smiling. Not just one. One.

I'm good at dinner parties. I'm great at holidays. Years ago I bought a sturdy Amish table that seats 12. I used it often. But tonight, I set it just for me. I moved a candle over and poured some wine. I took it all in.

All it needed was me. And me was plenty.

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