“Just you tonight?”
So many ways to take that question. Most often, I’m gracious. Sometimes, though, I pick up the unspoken sentiment, the suggestion of something missing. An incompleteness. (A Forbes.com post last year had the headline “Is There Anything More Pathetic Than A Table For One?”) This is the apparent plight of the solo diner.
Some restaurants bury single patrons in the least desirable geography of the room. Others direct them to the bar, regardless of the tumbleweed rolling by the tables. Not every restaurant creates this estrangement, especially no worthwhile one, but eating alone can feel like the bottom of the totem pole. That’s too bad, because it can be — and, for me, often is — a wonderful experience.
I’m at Chantecler, the Parkdale hotspot owned by Jonathan Poon and Jacob Wharton-Shukster, recommended for eating alone. I can see why it is a favourite. Along two walls is an el-shaped bar, like a Tetris piece stuck in place, which seats ten people, a third of capacity. The bar can be a great spot for solo diners, because it provides access to the staff. “Sitting at the bar, you get to chat with the bartenders and cooks, and learn more about the restaurant,” says the Grid’s own Karon Liu. “You get to see all the drinks and the food, and you can ask your questions.”
So it is at Chantecler: bartenders and servers move swiftly along the long end making drinks and delivering food, while those seated at the back can watch Poon cook on the much-discussed 1935 Moffatt electric stove. Wharton-Shukster describes the vibe akin to a party where “everyone is hanging out at the kitchen.” Kitchen parties are a favourite of his, and mine too.
I also love the opportunity to people-watch. The ease between old friends and lovers. The conspiratorial air among co-workers outside the cubicles. The nerves and tension of a first date. In lieu of a specific dining companion, the entire room becomes part of your world. And, sometimes you become part of theirs too. “People beside me will just rope me into their conversation,” says Liu.
Sometimes, I attract attention without meaning to do so. I moan when eating delicious food, and nearby patrons can’t resist asking what I’m having. It’s not a full-blown When Harry Met Sally moment, but I love eating alone because it affords devoting my attention to the food — to have an intense conversation with the meal, to consider each bite.
This love for food is why Danny Meyer deemed solo diners “royalty” in Setting The Table. Eric Wood, formerly of Fabarnak and Hawthorne, agrees, saying the book shifted his thinking and influenced his reputed set box lunches. It’s a smart idea, perfectly portioned with a taste of each course including dessert, which many solo diners often have to skip because they are too full, or the dessert is meant to share and thus too big for one. Wharton-Shukster sums up why it can be hard: “As a solo diner, you spend too much money, or you get overfed.”
Another issue is being rushed. “With groups you tend to think they want to linger. A single diner, the assumption is they are in a hurry,” says Wood. “I don’t know why that assumption’s there!” It’s frustrating as it curdles dining into work: an assembly line of hot dishes that require immediate attention lest they go cold, culminating in an unsatisfying dining experience squeezed into 45 minutes. To solve this, I now alert the server to my pace. Wood agrees: “People come in and say, ‘We need to be out in an hour, because we’re going to see a movie.’ So, why not say, ‘Hey, I’m in no rush, take your time.’”
A big part of dining alone well is regaining agency over the experience. Meals are a two-way communication between restaurant and patron, whether they sit at a table or bar. The social stigma, especially for younger generations, is fading. Being alone is more common: a third of Toronto households live alone and the number is rising. And, obviously, not just single people dine alone. Places like Chantecler are members in a wave of restaurants aware of the new normal.
Wharton-Shukster says nothing can go wrong as long as there are stiff drinks and plenty of activity. At least, that’s what I think he said. I don’t catch the end of his sentence, as I’m lost in the bustle of the staff, the delicious — and, yes — stiff drinks, and Craft Spells’ After The Moment over the sound system. I smile and nod anyhow. He shuffles off to deliver a plate of popcorn chicken, while over the speakers lead singer Justin Vallestero is hypnotically repeating “after the moment, with you.” It’s just me tonight.
And, it’s just perfect.
[Originally published in the Grid. RIP.]