Good for one person

Fence Sitter
A. R. Samson

Posted on March 01, 2016

Diets, and those who follow them, have made the solo dining a regular option in restaurants. There’s no one to ask -- what’s that stuff you’re eating, it looks like leftovers. While the buffet with its combination of overheated offerings, recycled food, and cook-as-ordered fresh stuff affords the dieter the choice of acceptable dishes and food types, skipping parts of a buffet only creates the feeling of spending too much for a partly eaten meal.

Restaurants now routinely offer dishes not for sharing. The solo serving probably improves the restaurant’s margins as the quantity is smaller and fits in one plate which itself is shrinking. The small portion is a counter-trend to the traditional family style of dining where the order is large, with the vagaries of how the lazy susan turns in relation to the seating arrangement, especially with discrete dishes like prawns or pigeons.

Restaurants have also introduced seating for the single patron no longer limiting his location to a stool at the bar. A small table by the window is ideal for solitary philosopher, watching the ebb and flow of pedestrians outside, occasionally entertaining dirty thoughts.

The solo diner wants to show that his solitary state is a matter of choice. (There were at least ten people begging to have lunch with me, and I turned them all down to be by myself.) He does not need company. He wants to think about the fate of humanity.

To ward off temptations from casual passers-by who may recognize him and perhaps feel a misplaced pity at his predicament, deciding to barge in and keep him company (and then stick him with the bill), the loner fiddles with his tablet or smartphone, sending text messages to unknown parties, and checking out the news and current movies.

The unaccompanied airline passenger which is becoming the dominant type of a frequent flyer is advised to pretend reading a book on his iPad to ward off unwanted intimacy from a seatmate. This same stunt of being busy with a book carried out in a restaurant will only seem pathetic. A solo diner with a book poses problems. What does he do? He puts down the book as he chews on the salad, and then picks it up again once the leaves are safely lodged in the mouth? This pretense of “I don’t need company” works better with a newspaper, but only in the morning. Reading a paper at lunch is a sign of unemployment.

Eating alone -- what’s wrong with that? Well, mastication of arugula leaves as an activity does not present a pretty picture. (Lifting weights at the gym is more of a selfie moment.) Just sitting down and putting food in the mouth and watching out for splatter on the shirt inevitably attracts unwanted attention -- what are you doing all alone for lunch? For most people, eating alone looks, well uncool. It can elicit an unexpected invitation from a well-meaning friend -- you want to join us at our table where you will come across as an oddball?

Getting through a solitary lunch requires self-confidence. Most will just take a sandwich at the office rather than step out of the cubicle farm to venture out as a solo diner. Regular soloists advise eating at a club (the membership-only type) or the food plaza of a mall where solo eaters are plentiful and usually ignored, even by the unassigned waiters. A shopping bag resting on the next chair is a good prop to shoo away joiners -- I’m supposed to meet my caregiver here.

Staring straight ahead while chewing food can look like a scene from an asylum. Only a secure person can claim not to be bothered by such stray impressions as being “between jobs” or without friends. One just has to dress well and look comfortable to dispel unwarranted thoughts of eating solo, not out of choice.

Still, eating is just a routine bodily function that happens to be allowed in public places with your clothes on. The soloist does not even need to pretend he is enjoying himself immensely. He’s just getting through a meal. And when he’s done, he simply asks for his bill, stands up... and gets on to his other perhaps non-solo pursuits.

A.R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.