Every Saturday when I was a kid, my father took me to a diner first thing in the morning before doing errands. It was usually a place in Jersey, where I’m from, that’s somewhat like Jimmy T’s on Capitol Hill. Though the food is merely serviceable—decent eggs and rye toast, lousy coffee with an acrid smell—it’s the endearingly divey diner that people love: salvaged Formica tables and cramped, wooden booths, the leg lamp from A Christmas Story atop an old-fashioned fridge, mismatched coffee mugs with images of state maps or faces that no one knows, and waitresses with long, painted fingernails, big hair, and killer accents.
Though I now think fondly of these breakfasts with my father, at the time I was ambivalent about them because I often ate in relative silence until he had finished reading the newspaper, which for him was the Newark Star Ledger. In the meantime, I drew on placemats and chatted with regulars, but more often than not I learned the pleasures of people-watching. The couple having a heated discussion about whether to sell their house. A not-so-smooth guy trying to pick up a girl out of his league. A father watching basketball, his young kids slouched across the bar, sipping Cokes from a straw to break their boredom. The voyeur in me appreciates these snapshots into people’s families and relationships, frustrations and vulnerabilities. During some of these moments, it’s as if the people and the place and the food shift from a hazy black and white to Technicolor.
While I didn’t pick up on his reading choices—I became a New York Times girl myself—I learned to enjoy dining out solo from my father.
I didn’t think it strange until I asked my friends how often they eat out alone and was met with very strong responses on one side or the other. Some friends—especially those who work very long hours or have kids—see it as a decadent indulgence. Others said they’d be mortified to do it. “Aren’t you embarrassed?” they asked.
The answer is no. And neither is the handful of people doing it at any given restaurant. Though I often eat at the bar, I’m not into burgers and standard bar fare so much as a sample of something: lamb tacos, pho, cured fish, charcuterie. I go with the intention of unwinding or reading, catching up on a book. But most of the time I end up seeing people I know or meeting someone new whom I’ll later reconnect with at a party or through my writing, all thanks to serendipity.
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