Life Behind Bars

Woman eating aloneIf you follow this blog you know I like to travel, and I often do it solo. It’s part conscious choice: I’m an introvert who tends to avoid trips involving days at the beach (there’s not enough sunscreen on earth to protect my pastiness), or hitting nightclubs and casinos. Give me a self-guided walking tour, a few historic sites and a spot of shopping in a mild climate – I’ll be a happy tourist.

Traveling on my own is also sometimes a necessity: I’m single with a lot of coupled-up friends. If I scheduled my trips around their availability, I’d wind up spending an awful lot of vacation time on my sofa.

And of course there’s also solo work travel. I’m not required to do a ton of it, and the trips are usually short so I enjoy them. There’s something about staying in a hotel room that someone tidies for you each day, and eating meals (on the company’s dime) that you neither prepared nor cleaned up after, that feels like an adventure – and not at all lonely.

Given how often I travel alone, and how comfortable I am with it, I often surprise myself when I arrive at a restaurant solo and tell the host/hostess, “Just one for dinner.” Or, “It’s just me.” I can’t explain why I feel the need to include the word just, as if I’m apologizing. Maybe it’s because restaurants so often leave me feeling contrite for taking up a whole table, “just” for myself.

I was recently in Palm Springs for a music festival that my company sponsors. On my first night, I headed downtown for VillageFest, a low-key Thursday night street fair. I arrived early, and found a restaurant that looked promising. I was told I’d have to eat at the bar.

Let me be clear: one of the advantages of traveling alone is I can often eat at great restaurants without a reservation, because I’m usually willing to sit at the bar. But this large bistro in Palm Springs was – I kid you not – about two-thirds empty at this time. There were unoccupied tables for two everywhere, so being booked solid was definitely not the issue.

I forced a smile, said “thanks anyway”, and kept walking, eventually finding a more crowded restaurant where I was nevertheless seated at a real table, like a valued customer. I had two cocktails, an appetizer and main course salad, and dessert. I suppose I felt like making a point.

When I walked past the snooty bistro about 90 minutes later, it was bustling but STILL had empty tables for two. So, what was gained by snubbing me?

Fast forward to this afternoon. I was not traveling, I just had errands to run at San Jose’s Santana Row. Despite its vast array of shops, with even more in a sprawling indoor mall across the street, I’m not a fan of the place. Teslas are on display in the center of the complex, surrounded by beautiful people lingering – being seen by other beautiful people — in large open-air restaurants with white tablecloths and a complete set of wine glasses at each place. In other words, forget every Midwest mall you’ve ever shopped in.

I made the mistake of approaching a French-American themed café by myself, seeing quite a few empty tables, and asking to be seated at one of them. The unsmiling hostess replied that single parties must sit at the bar. Not that there might be a wait, unless I was willing to sit at the bar. I was alone, so the bar was my only option.

I later joked that the swells at Santana Row seemed terrified that I might infect them with my unglamorous single-ness. There were tables to spare, so I can only conclude that the optics of a person dining alone was considered potentially depressing to other diners – an unwelcome appetite suppressant.

Because every ludicrous situation I encounter brings to mind a Seinfeld episode, I laughed thinking of season 9, and germaphobe coworker Peggy who was frantic that proximity to Elaine would contaminate her. Too bad today’s restaurant hostess didn’t leave a keyboard within arm’s reach.

tv comedy seinfeld elaine benez
In 2015, Deloitte University Press released a study focused on a steady rise in single-person households in the United States between 1960 and 2014 that is expected to continue for at least 15 years. While this trend will influence the way communities and housing are designed and built, I hope it will also force establishments like Zin American Bistro and The Left Bank to value the growing number of us who are as likely to travel, shop, dine and reside solo, as in a group.

Show us to a table, if that’s what we ask for, because there’s no more space at the bar.


9 thoughts on “Life Behind Bars

  1. This is excellent — what is the matter with these establishments?!? I am concocting all sorts of one-liners to these hostesses who require you to sit at the bar such as, “I am afraid I can’t do that as it’s against my religion.” And then order two cocktails at you 50% occupied table to for two!

    1. “If you seat me at the bar, I suspect I will only consume water and free bar nuts. Seat me at a table with full range of motion, and it’ll be martinis and appetizers for two. Your choice.”

  2. I’m not single but spent most of my thirties thus. I also used to like travelling alone but I never had these problems in the UK or anywhere in Europe. Is this phenomenon limited to fancy joints in California? I hope so, while agreeing that it should be stamped out.
    On the rare, but enjoyable, occasions when I eat alone, I always imagine that they think I may be a food critic.

    1. It’s true, Christine. I travel in Europe and the U.K. pretty regularly and no one has ever refused to seat me at a table there. I love that idea, though. The next time someone says this to me, I could whip out a notepad and pen, and ask their name in a mysterious way. Like, “This is all very interesting for my upcoming article…”

  3. How infuriating! I love eating in restaurants on my own. I booked (three months in advance) a 3 Michelin star restaurant in London once and I was a bit annoyed they gave me a late seating. But, once I arrived, I immediately saw my little table prettily set up for one and the maitre d’ went out of his way to make me comfortable and entertained for the three hours of the tasting menu. Worth every penny (and the food was great). I work in the food business and I can see how a (rude) hostess might see dollars evaporate if, god forbid, a lone patron occupies a table for two. You are very kind to just keep on walking. I would make a fuss. And, by the way, as I go to Palm Springs on a regular basis, would you mind sharing the name of the restaurant who snubbed you? So I won’t patronize it.

    1. Thanks, there are so many restaurants there I figured I’d count to ten, and fight another day over something that mattered more. In each case I had a vacation or a weekend state of mind I didn’t want to spoil.

      On a lighter note, I loved Palm Springs. I’d never been there before and can’t wait to go back… Not in the summer, though. The name of the restaurant is Zin American Bistro. Even their snub couldn’t ruin my visit to the desert.

      1. I love Palm Springs too. Let me know if you go back and, if you are interested, I will send you interesting hikes and places to eat. I have been going for 15 years on a regular basis.

  4. Ok- that makes me beyond mad that you have been treated this way! If anything I think the ability of a strong, independent girl to sit alone and eat comfortably should be celebrated. Those restaurants should have been treating you like a queen, because basically you were stating, “I am an independent, confident individual, and I choose to eat here.” Maybe I am reading into that or being dramatic, but that’s nuts that they treated you so poorly. I admire you though, and if I ever open a restaurant you can have whatever table you’d like, kay?! Best of luck to you!

    1. Thanks mackmarie! It’s funny I am running errands today and passed up a sister cafe of one of the spots I wrote about. I get my revenge through my wallet and the whole lot of them are on my “no” list.

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