Travel Essay



Table for One

By Jeanne Farewell

Illustration by Jeanne FarewellWhat is it about a woman dining alone that can still elicit looks of pity from some quarters? The “table for one” has become decidedly more common – especially in urban centers such as New York, where the lone figure of a well-dressed businesswoman dining with her laptop is hardly unusual. But the assumption there is that she is just eating to survive, that her primary purpose is to be done with the necessity of nourishment and get back to the office ASAP. The notion of a female having dinner alone simply for the pleasure of a good meal is still a bit outside of people’s comfort zones.

But that should be changed!

Take me, for example. My husband’s work being what it is (namely, unrelenting), I have no compunctions about occasionally taking off on my own private getaway weekend to indulge in the music, museums, historical sites – and cuisine – of other places. My friends are often busy with their own jobs and families, or perhaps have no hankering on a given weekend to hear back- to-back Bach or see Emerson’s desk. No problem. I book myself into fine restaurants and request a table for one.

“Don’t you mind eating alone?” I am often asked.

And the answer is absolutely not.

The thing is, I’m not the one who is uncomfortable with it, but those around me sometimes are.

I recently checked myself into a fine old New England inn (there is nothing I like better than dining in an old country inn – the duller the pewter and the darker the beams, the better), and I asked for a table for one. A cloud came across the hostess’s face, and she looked at me with pity and concern.

“I’ll seat you in a nice spot where you can people-watch,” she finally said, smiling kindly.
I wondered if she was actually implying that she would seat me off in a dark corner where I wouldn’t be so conspicuous, but would have a panoramic view of all the other diners, which is what she evidently thought I was after.

“I like to people-watch, too,” she whispered, trying hard to be supportive.

“Actually, I’m not here to people-watch,” I said decisively, somehow not being able to picture myself gazing longingly at the other diners enjoying themselves with convivial conversation while I sat forlorn and neglected on the sidelines. “I have work to do.” I patted my purse as if to reassure her that I was okay with the situation, and had work in my bag to keep me occupied.

“Oh,” she smiled broadly. “That’s different. I’ll seat you near the window where there’s more light.” She seemed to noticeably brighten at the prospect that I actually had something to do other than stare dejectedly at those around me having fun.

I could have had something approaching a dinner companion, I should add. My husband, somewhat remorseful about his absence, had offered to “virtual dine” with me: I have a small laptop with video Skype capability, and I could have easily have set it on my table and conversed pleasantly throughout the meal with the virtual spouse, but I declined.

Jeanne FarewellI chose instead to pull out my Kindle – forget about work, thank you – and I immediately downloaded some effervescent Brit Lit, and spent the meal charmingly entertained and completely oblivious of those around me. The good thing about Kindle in a restaurant is that you don’t have to hold it: you can prop it against a sugar bowl at the perfect angle for reading. Also, unlike an unwieldy paperback that you have to forcibly keep open with one hand while attempting to turn the page with another, you can go through an e-book with a simple press of a button, and there are buttons on both sides so you can use either hand, enabling your forkful of delectable Indian Pudding to continue unimpeded in its progress to your mouth. The Kindle, too, offers the larger font sizes, so if you’re in one of these dusky, candlelit places, you have no problem seeing the text whatsoever. If you just beef up the letters to Kindergarten size, a candle is all you need.

I must say, I enjoyed my dinner in the old inn immensely, and I think that even the hostess was okay with it: she looked over at me approvingly as if to demonstrate that she was up-to-date and had no starchy Victorian hang-ups about unescorted female diners. I think she came to the realization that it takes all kinds to make up the world, solo diners included, and she accepted that. And I felt better that she felt better. I didn’t have the worry hanging over my head that the hostess was feeling uncomfortable on my account.

My meal was mouthwatering, and I was so absorbed in both the food and the fiction that I hardly noticed the diners around me. But when I did finally take note of the couple at the next table, I realized that they had not distracted me because, essentially, they were not talking. Either they had exhausted their supply of conversation for the day, had nothing in common, or they weren’t on speaking terms. Whatever the reason, I realized that I, a woman dining alone, was having an absolutely smashing time with my British friend who happened to be a book, and they, poor souls, looked as if they had never felt so alone.

Table for One?

Think nothing of it.

Jeanne Farewell is the author of a novel, Old Rye, and a short story collection, Nantucket Snow. Her essays, stories, and book reviews have been published in literary journals and magazines in the U.S., London, and on the Victorian Web. Also a pianist, Jeanne has performed in the U.S, China, Europe, and in the U.K., and has given lecture-recitals about music that is based on art and literature, sometimes incorporating her own illustrations. The illustration above is, in fact, one of them.

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