Spills’ Guide to Dining Alone
January 28th, 2015
Wow, there is so much I want to say on the topic, it’s crazy. Here are ten tips for sticking it to the stigma in style:
I. Alone ≠ “To-Go”
This is a guide for dining alone, not eating alone. That means taking the space your outing offers and making the most of it. I can get down with the occasional park-and-eat, but unless you’re in a big hurry, grab a seat by the window and unwrap that thing you just ordered. You bought it; show some respect! Here are two snafu’s to avoid:
1. Starting to eat your burrito on the car-ride home;
2. Bringing your burrito home and putting it on a plate as though you prepared it yourself.
Most people (myself included) have committed both of these acts ad nauseum. The first one has obvious pitfalls. You’re giving up on the dignity of a table; you will probably drip mayo or hot sour cream all over your quarter-zip; dipping sauce is impossible; you’re a hazard.
My qualms with option #2 are more complex, bound up in my dread of malaise. If you have the luxury of going out to get food, you probably have time to sit and eat said food – but instead, you aim to sprinkle morsels of joy throughout the rest of the workday (and your desk), or you’re looking for an excuse to whip open a TV tray and get cozy. At that point, indulgence becomes too big of an event. Actually, it becomes two events – the going out and the return – transforming a takeout run into a prodigal affair: temptation and guilt drive you out of your normal sphere, and all of a sudden you are “treating yourself.”
Come on now: that burrito never lasts past the opening credits of Breaking Bad, and nobody likes flicking flakes of yellowed basmati rice off their keyboard.
Simply put, abusing the to-go option is wasteful. Instead, take 10 minutes and eat your food right after you order it. It’s amazing how much thought can go into chewing. Whatever you do, don’t say maybe I’ll take it to the park! If it’s a bagel yeah, sure. But one time in NYC, I popped by an Indian deli in Chelsea for a nicely sectioned tray of lentils and cauliflower in a saffron sauce. Hey, I’m right next to the Highline!
Oh, boy. That place is, yknow, pretty narrow. Narrow is no good for dining alone.
II. Tie your Shoes.
If you’re looking for a reason to feel self-conscious, well, there’s a start.
III. Find Your Diner.
Your diner doesn’t need alternating framed photos of James Dean and Johnny Unitas. It doesn’t need aluminum trim, big heavy clocks or linoleum. It doesn’t even have to serve pancakes (but who doesn’t love em?) – here’s my main criteria:
1. Lots of booths
2. Fast, no-frills service
3. Pay at the counter.
That last one is key. A diner is a place designed to accommodate – not appreciate – your presence. That does not mean good diners are always bustling with assholes: servers just don’t feel the need to impress you. If you wanna clam up and stare into your coffee, they understand. If you are feeling chipper, they’ll chat a little, then back to work. They leave the ticket face-down on the table. Ignore it as long as you please. Your leaving does not depend on their hustle.
And this is a boon for lone diners: no matter how sweet they are about it, waiters who check-up often make anyone anxious. How are ya doin’ there? is just a more subtle when ya takin’ off? – no shit, but the pay-at-the-counter system eschews that awkwardness entirely. A good diner lets you decide when your body has become a burden; a great diner is never all that busy anyway.
As pretentious as this sounds, the diner is more of an idea than an artifact: once you’ve found your diner, you’ll know. My college haunt was a Mexican place called El Puerto. After a while they recognized me (I came in weekly), but the treatment didn’t change much. They just stopped asking for my ID, and I knew I was in: I’d earned it.
IV. Brunch? Don’t even think about it.
That’s that. End of discussion. Brunch is for the weekends, with friends. Breakfast, on the other hand, is fair game all day, all night. It’s cheap, it’s easy, it doesn’t need flavored booze or a DJ. That’s why diners love it – everyone loves breakfast. Breakfast is for everyone.
V. It’s OK to be Steven Glansberg.
Meaning, you don’t need a book. Especially a novel. It’s one thing to set up in a Starbucks and read for a little with your mocha; it’s another thing to do that with a cheeseburger. This has nothing to do with class. It’s just that, yknow, cheeseburgers are kinda messy.
Meals deserve concentration. When you try to simultaneously eat a taco and read The New York Times, what do you think your brain values more: the key to its survival, or some guy’s review of American Sniper? I have no research to back that up – it’s just common sense.
Now here’s the counterexample: many people (myself included) lose their appetites when out on dates. My completely unfounded theory? The desire to procreate can trump your survival impulse. Brains get it; they forgive you. It knows that if things go well and you spend some time with this nice girl, it is only a few months before you can take her to El Puerto twice a week.
VI. A Pen? Great Idea!!
We don’t write enough, mostly because our thoughts are totally useless. Thus, the paradox: our thoughts are totally useless, unless we write them down.
Anyone who has at least a primary school education knows the feeling of returning to work after a long, lazy summer, only to discover that your previously tight, manicured script has become a horrendous scrawl. How do we let that happen to ourselves? If the NFL can hold our society to an hour of physical activity a day, can some egghead go on NPR and mandate at least, I don’t know, 15 minutes of creative writing?
I’m not saying everyone needs a journal. When I write journal entries, I go back at them six months later, and it only takes a couple sentences before I start thinking this, this really sucks. I’m a jotter, and I feel people can benefit from some jots every now and then. Jotting can be done between bites, it requires only brief flashes of attention. After licking your fingers and before balling up the foil, pause: what have I seen, done, heard recently that I liked, that I hated? That didn’t occur to me until now? Just gripping a pen can stir out a lot. Besides, pens are stylish; they make you look smart. Books make you look like a douchebag.
VII. Popeyes is a winner.
Just don’t get the fried chicken – I know, that’s crazy!!
Go with the chicken strips. They are great. A dry, crispy husk – boneless – is ideal fare for dining alone. Biscuits aren’t bad either. And the bayou crooners they pipe in are a nice break from “Firework.”
VIII. Be Nice…Stay For a While…
Having swept, swore, and served behind the counter of a major fast food chain, I’ll tell ya, no one is a more welcome sight than that guy who comes in everyday between the lunch rush and the rush hour and orders the same goddamn thing every time. Everyone loves that guy, he never complains. We should all aspire to be that guy sometime somewhere.
Conversely, everyone hates the rube who chortles his way through the door and ends up shouting this sweet tea isn’t fuckin sweet!!! If you dine alone, and you are that guy, you are a loser and deserve to go to hell.
IX. Be Brave.
If you haven’t experienced “Yelp guilt” yet, you are either a sociopath or you haven’t been swept off your feet by the most useful social media platform of the past decade. Here’s what I’m talking about: browsing around you find “this great local spot,” but all the reviews say something to the tune of “oh geez I feel like I shouldn’t have posted this, now everyone is gonna come here!” – don’t flatter yourself, you cunt.
Never feel guilty about exploring these places, the neighborhood joints and hole-in-the-walls. When you dine alone, you’ll fly completely under the radar! Erase those mental images of bushy, raised eyebrows and a gaunt man who stops sweeping to look up as you enter the door. You and your one ass are not responsible for gentrifying a whole block, unless you bring the kickball team.
X. Earn it.
Before driving across a few states and a country and Kansas to arrive along the Columbia River, I couldn’t sleep. Half-drunk and a bit too warm, lying on my friend’s couch in the heart of Charlottesville, stuck to the leather, something prevented me from slipping away….
I’ve since come up with a name for those weird mega-hard boners that kept me up. I call them “nerve dongs” –
Anywho, I gave up any idea of rest. I flipped open my Yelp app instead: I’d get a little breakfast, grab some gas, hit the road. It was 5:52 AM. The Villa, one of my diners, was the only decent place opening within five miles.
I waited with a thin, dour man outside the door. Right at 6 the first hostess let us in. Coffee was brewing, new wave already wafting out of the speakers – all was right. Soon, more men began to roll in, each alone. We had booths to ourselves (The Villa is nothing but booths) and nobody exchanged glances. Nobody talked. It was an underworld of weary, contented folk: I mean, they could have been miserable, they just didn’t let it show. Be polite, nod or say “thanks” to the waitress, take your ticket to the register before you leave. Pay.
That day I drove through the Blue Ridge Mountains as the sun rose behind me, over the road. A big brunch with all my friends? Nah, that’s shitty – who likes to call ahead? And in the morning?
Meals alone, when done right, can be sacred. Of course, not all of them are – any beautiful thing can be abused. Don’t refuse company, but don’t insist on seeking it out. Remember: there is always someone sadder than you. And many more who look it.
To the Reader: I understand that most of my evidence is anecdotal, derived from a singular male perspective; however, I believe that much of my advice can be applied to the female experience. That said, I feel that a woman should not travel to a Popeyes unescorted, after 11pm. That may not be the greatest idea.