|Sam Porter of Somerville, a regular at the Monday Club Bar at Upstairs on the Square in Cambridge, savors the solitude on a recent afternoon. (Essdras M. Suarez/Globe Staff)|
Adventures in ‘table for one’
Forgo the pity, forget the BlackBerry or the book, and embrace the possibilities
Cooking for one is all the rage. No fewer than three books published this year are devoted to the subject, such titles as “What We Eat When We Eat Alone,’’ by celebrated author Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin, “The Pleasure Is All Mine: Selfish Food for Modern Life,’’ from actress-turned-chef Suzanne Pirret, and “The Pleasures of Cooking for One,’’ by Judith Jones, longtime editor for Julia Child. Each is about food, but all are celebrations of the self - paeans to the possibilities of solitary food adventures, rooted in the notion that we are our own best company.
But “table for one’’ is a loaded phrase - always a little sad-sounding, even when you’re not sad in the slightest - even if you are euphoric at the prospect of an hour alone with a glass of wine and a plate of good food. There’s a stigma attached to eating out alone, especially dinner in a decent restaurant. All those couples. All those conversations. What do you even look at when you’re in a restaurant by yourself?
I’ve spent much of my working life as a music critic, which means going out a lot at night, often by myself. Many of those nights involve having a meal before or after a show, and over the years I’ve become a rarity, especially among my female friends: a seasoned solo diner.
Dining alone can be all kinds of things: amusing, meditative, sociable. It can also be dull or, worse, discomfiting. The main thing is to avoid the nagging sense that you’ve got “Friendless’’ tattoed on your forehead. And the best way to vanquish self-consciousness isn’t to bury your face in a book or tap away at your PDA, tempting though it may be, but to engage. Be quietly bold with your eyes and ears. Wear your independence like a badge of honor.
It’s easy at the Monday Club Bar, the more casual of two dining rooms at UpStairs on the Square in Harvard Square. The room is a visual feast: odd, beautiful colors, mismatched chandeliers, and eclectic fabrics - and the staff is as warm as the decor. When I arrive on a recent weeknight, the bar is full. So when an amiable staffer (who I later learn is Matthew Lishansky, director of operations) asks if I want a table, I utter a variation on the loaded phrase.
“It’s just me.’’
“It’s not just you,’’ he replies, and promptly fixes me a killer Manhattan, with a dusky red cherry that bears no relation to the sweet neon balls that decorate lesser cocktails.
It’s cabaret night, so I welcome a table with a view of the duo almost as gratefully as I welcome my dinner: fava bean risotto with housemade chicharron (crisp morsels of smoked pork), one-hour egg, and shaved Parmesan. The egg is a minor miracle: poached for 60 minutes at very low temperature until the white is cooked to a milky consistency and the yolk is still runny. A gentle stir and the risotto turns downright lush. Supping on this comforting concoction is like having an impossibly decadent breakfast for dinner.
Devra First, this paper’s restaurant critic, says that her ideal meal alone in a restaurant is a big bowl of pasta. My ideal meal alone in a restaurant involves a view of the kitchen. By those standards Sportello, a chic diner composed of a single serpentine bar in the Fort Point neighborhood, is pretty close to perfect. The trattoria-inspired menu is filled with handcrafted pasta dishes and every seat has a view of the gleaming, open kitchen. Queried about her favorite dish, my waitress, a young woman with a discreet blue streak in her hair, recommends strozzapreti with braised rabbit, which I graciously decline. I explain that I am a rabbit owner, and it turns out so is her family. We have a lively discussion about the joys and sorrows of life with bunnies, reminding me that given the opportunity, most people like to talk.
From my perch, I observe the cook tending to my mid-afternoon meal of polenta with mushroom ragu as it is portioned, stirred, assembled, drizzled with olive oil, and topped with fat curls of fresh Parmesan. I could be wrong, but I’m thinking a watched chef is a mindful and generous chef. She spoons a bountiful medley of mushrooms in rich brown sauce into a deep bowl of velvety polenta, and it’s enough to feed me and the lucky recipient of my leftovers. While eating I take in the restaurant’s young crew as they prep beans and sort herbs for the evening meal. It is - no contest - better than TV.
Sushi bars fit the solo dining bill for much the same reason; talk about a front-row view of the kitchen. Bars and counters are generally preferable to tables, particularly in nice restaurants: it’s a more casual, less obvious spot to perch alone. It’s also where you’re likely to strike up a conversation with an amiable bartender or a fellow solo diner. But it dawns on me during a meal at the cozy bar at Il Capriccio in Waltham that a place can be a little too cozy. The crispy trout with spinach, smoked prosciutto, and lentils is sublime - a perfect balance of delicate fish, crunchy flecks of ham, and creamy legumes. The vibe is less so. Everyone there seems to know each other, the host, or the bartender, who chats up the regulars and ignores yours truly. I felt as if I’d walked into a private club of which I am not a member.
Not so at Franklin Southie, the third outpost in the Franklin Cafe’s expanding stable of upscale neighborhood restaurants. A rhinestone-studded peace sign dangling from the bartender’s neck seems to sum up the aesthetic: slick but laid-back. A family with an infant is tucked into a corner booth, a group of suits is gathered for drinks, and an eclectic mix - including two other solo diners - is seated at the large bar, where I nab the last seat at 6:15 on a Thursday. Sometimes being alone is all about the crowd that surrounds you, and I feel at home here.
Provided you don’t mind an extra spoonful or two of dressing on your salad, the black pepper-seared tuna served on field greens is delectable - like warm sashimi with a kick. The fish is crusty on the outside, rare in the middle. It comes with chunky smashed potatoes that aren’t listed on the menu, and the smiling bartender, to her credit or her blame, doesn’t look at me sideways when I order french fries, which I don’t for a moment regret, despite the embarrassment of potatoes in front of me. She is incredibly busy. So are the waiters, one of whom goes out of his way to say hello, nice to see you, as he passes my corner stool.
He has never seen me before. But he will see me again.
Joan Anderman can be reached at email@example.com. Restaurant critic Devra First will return in a couple of weeks.