One of the intriguing things that has stuck with me from the brief time I spent "staging" in the kitchens at Daniel in New York City, while in culinary school, is that every solo diner is automatically elevated to VIP status-rewards include a few extra gougères, a greater assortment of canapés, and special attention behind the scenes. Armed with this knowledge, I have always wanted to stop in unaccompanied and sit at the bar on a Tuesday night to leisurely munch my extra-special canapés and sip a great glass of Burgundy while waiting for their addictively luscious terrine to arrive. Unfortunately, I am not usually so bold as to dine alone. Especially in such an elegant establishment.
After a late night at the office yesterday, however, I thought it would be nice to walk home on my own. My path brought me through Korea Town and, having not eaten dinner, I thought it an opportune moment to satisfy my recent craving for mandoo gukk, a flavorful broth fortified with a generous helping of scallion and beef dumplings. I stopped at one of the larger 24-hour restaurants on 32nd St. , where I climbed the stairs and waited a few minutes for a host to return to his stand and ask how many people would be dining. I boldly informed him that it would just be me, and I can honestly say that I downright relished his look of surprise.
He lead me to a four-top partially concealed by a screen and immediately brought me water and a plate of salad. At this point I had to ask myself if single diners only received the simple green salad instead of all the usual Ban Chan, an assortment of small dishes ranging from kimchee to pickled mushrooms and peppers. Luckily, ten minutes later, the same man returned with a tray weighed down by the familiar collection of small white bowls, each filled with a different appetizer. Having eaten at this same restaurant (and many other Korean spots) before, I was aware that they were not fussing over me simply out of pity, but rather because this was the traditional way to enjoy dinner. Truth be told, I think I enjoyed it more than ever before because I didn't have to share myself or my food. I could eat all of the mung beans and spicy tofu, my favorites, alone, and I didn't have to entertain anyone, make conversation, heck, I didn't even have to smile or make delighted and approving noises while I chewed.
New York is a city where there is always something happening, where there are millions of people, but it is still common to feel alone, trapped within your apartment if you have no partner-in-crime on a particular evening. It can inspire a unique type of loneliness, this being-alone-yet-surrounded by so many and so much.
I recently had a conversation with a friend who does a lot of freelance travel writing and we discussed the pros and cons of visiting foreign cities alone, something I have never had a taste for. Part of me thinks I should find it appealing because I do love wandering the streets of New York in the summer unchaperoned, no plans, no scheduled appointments, totally at liberty to follow wherever my curiosity, whimsy, and stomach might lead. My most pressing question for this friend was about how he ate on these "business trips." His response: street food. Don't get me wrong, I love markets and street food of almost every variety. But I also love researching (or stumbling upon) great restaurants, from the spontaneously discovered hole in the wall to the much celebrated spot du jour. And I love sitting down, across the table from a familiar face, ordering more than one person could possibly eat, sharing multiple courses, discussing the day's finds, and planning the following day's adventures.
Anyway, back to last night and my Korean food, which was a revelation, or more accurately, a rediscovery that eating alone (even in a sit-down restaurant) can be relaxing, even rewarding. I felt self-righteous, self-confident, defiant of expectations in all the best ways. So what if at the end of the meal I felt obligated to leave a slightly larger tip than I might otherwise have done?
Finally, a question: When was the last time you dined out alone? Do you have any tips on proper etiquette for enjoying a meal (and not irritating the establishment) as a solo eater?
Heather Tyree joined Epicurious after attending the Institute of Culinary Education and working in the renowned kitchens of New York 's Daniel and Perry St. Born in New York , Tyree grew up mainly abroad, both in Europe and Asia , where she acquired not only a permanent sense of wanderlust but a great curiosity for and love of other cultures and cuisines. Before deciding to pursue her lifelong interest in all things food related, she studied History at Yale and survived a two-and-a-half-year stint in finance.
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