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.