I often wish that people were born with their Myers Briggs Type Indicator emblazoned on their foreheads. You know, ESTJ or INFP or something similar. The four categories break down as follows: Introverts/Extroverts, Sensing/Intuitive, Thinking/Feeling, Judging/Perceiving. The codes would serve as both ice-breaker and instruction manual. Working on a group project would be so much easier knowing that one of your teammates is simply wired to procrastinate, or that the loud restaurant created sensory-overload for your date.
But with all the personality types out there, most people still find one thing very hard to do: eat alone in a restaurant. Whether by choice or by necessity, we’ve all had the occasion to sit by ourselves for a meal. It could be that you’re out of town on business or you’re just craving the Thursday night special at your local brasserie. One thing is for sure: it is not for the faint of heart.
I walk the line between extrovert and introvert. My family will tell you that I go through life with tap shoes on, always looking for an audience but, truth be told, I find great respite in solitude. I can be alone and never lonely, but dining alone has its challenges, even for someone like me.
For years, certain restaurants have had large communal tables, where groups or individual diners could gather to eat. This concept harkens back to the idea that meals were meant to be shared and food to be enjoyed, without the distraction of social media and televisions. Joining others at the table is a communion of sorts; a way to reflect on the day, give praise for the meal and those who prepared it.
In cities large and small you can find communal tables: The Smith House in Dahlonaga, Ga.; The Dinner Bell in McComb, Ms.; Beast in Portland, Or.; and avec in Chicago, Il. Locally, restaurants that include communal tables include Pinches Tacos in Homewood, Urban Standard and brick & tin downtown and Bottega Café on Highland Avenue. In restaurants like these, the focus is on the diner and the food, as well as the dining experience. The meal moves from something to fill one’s belly to an event to be savored.
Websites such as ChowHound.com can assist people looking for restaurants that offer communal tables. A quick poll of Facebook friends resulted in a long list, from my own vetted sources.
Going solo on a business trip recently, I was forced to eat several meals by myself. Lunch for one is never hard since people do that all the time. It’s the evening meal that gives pause. As no communal table exists at the highly acclaimed Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill, I had taken a seat at the bar. I could push away any discomfort in eating by myself, in favor of the chance to eat at this Asian/North Carolina fusion restaurant that came so highly recommended. Besides, I had been working all day, and my head was filled with remnants of things I had accomplished and lists of those that still needed to be done. The introvert in me welcomed the opportunity to be quiet, and let the other senses take over for a while.
I challenged myself to NOT take out a book or magazine or even pull out my iPhone at the table. I know—a meal without Twitter updates or Facebook posts—the shock! But, I found that all of my senses became heightened; I tasted every nuance of the cucumber-infused cocktail. The lacquered chunks of Korean barbecued pork belly with pickled green tomatoes were even more exquisite. The salt-and-pepper-crunchy shrimp with fried Thai basil leaves were elevated to the sublime.
Of course, I quickly found myself eavesdropping on the nearby diners. A pair of 20-something girls debated the merits and pitfalls of having children. A husband and wife reconnected over a few Manhattans. And for those I could not hear, I created backstories and filled out their resumes. That couple in the corner were definitely stepping out on their spouses. That other group? Please. They were clearly part of a high-level nuclear delegation on some secret assignation in the Research Triangle. Dining alone can impart an air of mystery, and I liked to think others wondered what my secret mission was, seated at the end of a soft-lit mahogany-lined bar. Confident. Alone.
Christiana Roussel lives in Crestline and is a lover of all things food-related. You can follow her culinary musings on-line at ChristianasKitchen.com or on Facebook (ChristianasKitchen) or Twitter (Christiana40).