In my response to Pam Kirst’s comment on “The Stormy Seas Of Life,” I mentioned that I have eaten many, many meals alone. Although I have wished for company on such occasions a multitude of times, it is just as honest to say that a large majority of those meals have been part of the best days and best nights I have ever spent in my life. For, as Stephanie Rosenbloom points out in a long, evocative essay, “On Eating Alone in Paris,”
“When you’re not sitting across from someone, you’re sitting across from the world.”
Dining can certainly feel that way at the Palace Cafe in New Orleans. During a vacation in the Crescent City about five years ago, I walked there from my hotel on a soft October evening and had dinner al fresco at one of the restaurant’s sidewalk tables. I’ve eaten at the Palace Cafe dozens of times, almost all of them inside the restaurant but, on this occasion, it was a delightful change to watch people pass by: couples, singles, children, street vendors calling it a day as they pushed their carts down the wide Canal St. I could see a full moon rise up over the buildings of the CBD as I ate my grilled fish, and I thought again–for at least the hundredth time–how lucky I’ve been to have lived and eaten so many meals in a place that values the pleasure of eating good food as much as New Orleans does.
I could have had nearly the same experience that night had I chosen to dine indoors, but the Palace Cafe has a noisy interior, one not quite offset by the prettiness of its green and gold decor or the spiral staircase that leads to the second floor. Most of the tables are four-tops, but the booths can seat one or two most comfortably. From such a booth, a diner can watch the kitchen in action, or he or she can do as I sometimes do and watch my fellow diners. They are laughing, sipping wine, taking bites of crabmeat cheesecake, or ordering dessert. Very seldom do they appear to be arguing, or even to be in a foul mood. To eat a meal in such a place is often to call a truce with the people and things that vex us in life. We check our tempers at the door along with our coats.
Such was the case on a rainy fall night in 1996. I was on my way home with a backpack full of papers to grade and not looking forward to the task. I stopped in to Mr. B’s Bistro, a dark-paneled restaurant of the Brennan family on Royal St., cleared my eyeglasses of the raindrops and humidity that had collected on them and ordered a strip steak and a glass of iced tea before I leaned back in the chair to rest. The steak came, but even in the low light I could see that the chef had burned it. I was startled, for in all the times I had come to Mr. B’s (nearly as many times as to the Palace Cafe), the restaurant had never messed up an order for me. This one, although clearly not right, was not terrible, and I was too tired and dispirited to complain about it. Within about two minutes, however, one of the hostesses I had gotten to know well there came over and took a look at my plate. “That’s not right,” she said. “Let me give it back and have them fix you a better one.” I did, and the moment I gave it up, my whole body relaxed, and I knew the evening had taken a crucial turn for the better. Those sorts of things can and do happen when one dines out often enough to establish a rapport with the people who run a restaurant. They’ll do a lot to make things right.
A little while later, I came back to Mr. B’s for dinner, again dining alone, this time on a seared pork chop and some collard greens that were so good the meal took me back to my childhood, to some place in my memory I cannot quite identify, where I’d had a meal of similar quality. I understood–for the first time, really–why some diners make such a fuss over collard greens and why artists and writers like Marcel Proust find food to be such a profoundly effective trigger to release memories and emotions we did not know we possessed. Had I been dining with someone else that night, it’s likely the meal would not have made such an impression on me. Dining alone allows the diner to focus, if he wishes, on the textures, the aromas, and the tastes of the food without distraction. Often, the memorable meals we have with someone else are not memorable because of the food, but because of the other person.
Yet, other people can crowd in upon us even as we sit singly at a table. Sometimes, it’s a pleasure, as when I engaged a small family in conversation during a holiday meal at Bayona, Susan Spicer’s Euro-Orlean restaurant in the French Quarter. We exchanged pleasantries, then the young son of the couple I was talking to suddenly announced, “I’m going to kiss you.” And he did. He walked right over to my table and planted a kiss on my right cheek. All of us laughed at the affectionate humanness of that moment. Then, too, a stranger might have been tempted to laugh at the waiter who sang “America the Beautiful” to me just before my breakfast at Brennan’s one Fourth of July morning, but the waiter’s tenor voice was so beautiful, his talent would have hushed any wisecracks. Other appearances of people at a single diner’s table, however, are stealthier and the emotions they stir are more akin to grief. During a Thanksgiving meal at the Palace Cafe one year, I was taken back to a Thanksgiving my fellow graduate students and I shared at Illinois in the fall of 1985–Ed Jacobs’s sweet potatoes, Ellen Brown’s turkey, Janet Eldred’s green bean casserole–and in those moments, I was so present in that prior time, and I missed all of my friends so terribly, that I was overcome, and could not continue eating my actual meal. I wonder if our common insistence on having company at the table is rooted in part in a fear of calling up such powerfully nostalgic memories if we dine alone?
If that is the case, those groups seated comfortably at a four-top or a six-top need not be concerned when they see a single woman or a single man pull back a chair or slide into a booth for lunch or dinner. We bring the world with us, both present and past, whenever we dine, wherever we go, just as surely as that world is before us as we eat. Dining alone is an opportunity to unpack our daily experiences in ways that don’t impinge on the lives of our lovers or our coworkers. The conversations we have with ourselves during such meals, risky though they may be and perilous to our psyches, can also be the best conversations we’ll have all day, and refreshing to our lives.
[NOTE: An hour or so after posting this entry, I read of the passing of Ella Brennan, aged 92, who ran Brennan’s and, later, Commander’s Palace, making Commander’s Palace into the single best place to have a meal in New Orleans and one of the greatest restaurants in the world. She was a legend, and she will be missed.]