AT THIS TIME, what can be more in keeping with social distancing than eating by oneself in a dine-in restaurant?
Solo meals when traveling (before the imposition of quarantines and the new normal) invited no social stigma. Meals taken abroad are often hurried affairs squeezed in between local tours, taken in fast food outlets, or even more quickly by a sidewalk stand selling pickled herring. There is no need to request for a table for one in a restaurant with the likelihood of getting seated in a dimly lit corner near the washroom, figuring out the cultural intricacies of what to order and how much to tip.
In our culture, eating is a social experience entailing relationships, bonding moments and celebrations, with only a semblance of fulfilling a nutritional function. In fact, social meals are characterized by unhealthy eating loaded with carbs and cholesterol. A proper diet can require eating alone.
Still, the solo diner gets defensive about being alone. When greeted by a passing friend who chances upon him chewing his chef salad in front of an empty chair, the soloist feels obliged to make up stories on his notso-temporary state — She just stepped out to park the car.
The solo diner feels compelled to hide his discomfort. He tries to lower his profile and blend with the sparse crowd. He chooses a food court for his meal to be lost in the anonymous mass of customers sharing tables, providing a ready cast with whom he can carry on a conversation — where’d you get that cheap dessert?
Maybe, a prop is employed. Fiddling with one’s phone while having lunch can be cumbersome when needing two hands for the fried chicken wing not to drop into the soup. Perhaps, one is checking his stock portfolio and marking his losses to market? Or, is he checking his slides for a Zoom meeting later?
The man with an open computer on the table and a halfeaten sandwich on a plate beside it is not considered a social leper. Even with company, he is engaged in his self-absorbed pursuit. If he is having lunch alone, he is not seen as pathetic, merely busy.
He is the Master of the Universe tracking his net worth.
There are some advantages in dining alone.
The bill is cheaper, though not eligible for reimbursement. (You were entertaining yourself ?) Even when splitting the bill with other lunch mates in a non-business setting, the individual’s share is usually higher than a solo meal. The usual practice of “Dutch Treat” is to divide the total bill among the number of diners. This is not always fair as some may not have ordered soup or have removed dessert from their diet but they pay the same amount as the wine drinker. The “Manhattan Treat” is the fairest way of sharing the bill. However, it is too cumbersome to implement requiring each diner to ask for a separate check depending on what he ordered.
What if somebody shared your dessert? The “Business Treat” has only one person getting the reimbursable bill — Can I have your senior card?
When eating solo, there is no lag time waiting for others to arrive or place their orders. (Sir, the paella valenciana will take another 30 minutes.) The solo diner quickly places his order, eats his meal, and pays his bill. He can, of course, also take his time with his iced cappuccino, savoring the dregs at the bottom of the cup if that is what he feels like doing. Nobody is rushing him.
One can find many soloists at open-air cafes taking their refreshments slowly and watching the passing scene behind sunglasses. Is that a smile behind the face mask?
Maybe, the solo coffee drinker is meditating on the difference between Chronos and Kairos in the matter of perceived time and idleness. He becomes a passive observer of random happenings in front of them, eavesdropping on conversations of quarrelling lovers about to split up, secure in the feeling of not being part of that conversation — life is beautiful.
Accepting solitude, whether dining alone or just being in the moment, is a way of emptying the mind and imagining parallel universes. Solitude can be comforting until it gets… well, boring.