From the Jakarta Ritz-Carlton to Kerala guesthouses to the Detroit Marriott, environmental journalist and educator Simran Sethi has eaten more room service meals than she can count. “I’m sure it’s in the thousands,” she says.
And why was she so often eating alone in her hotel room?
“I was always ashamed to go to a restaurant alone and ask for a table for one,” she says.
But at the end of five years of cross-continental research for her book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, Sethi stepped out — and made reservations at a cevicheria in Lima, Peru.
She was ushered to a table with a view of the sink – the worst in the restaurant. But she adamantly refused, and soon was seated at a much better table for two. Not long after, while sipping her pisco sour (Peru’s signature cocktail), she says she ate the tastiest grilled octopus of her life.
“I love octopus, and this one was a deep purple wonder,” she tells us over email, “cooked over fire, with flesh so tender it tasted of wood and the ocean.”
Suddenly, Sethi writes, dining out alone felt like a courageous act. Striking up conversation with those around her led her to feel much more connected to people in the city she was visiting than she’d ever imagined.
Sethi’s celebration of dining out alone in Bread, Wine, Chocolate, which was released Nov. 10, is perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist. Online restaurant reservations provider Open Table — which is owned by Priceline — reported in October that there has been a 62 percent rise in solo reservations over the past two years. And data collected by the Hartman Group, a market research firm, for a report by the Food Marketing Institute, showed that nearly half of all meals in America are now eaten alone — and half of those meals are eaten away from home.
Of course, some people eat alone grudgingly. But a table for one can also be a “third place” where one goes by choice to be alone among others. The term “third place” was initially coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place, and inspired immensely successful hangouts like Starbucks and Panera. Today, technology also eases some of our discomfort of sitting alone in public: We can tap away at a dissertation or a love letter or skim social media.
But there may be a deeper shift occurring, and that has to do with the pleasure and power of food itself. As we collectively grow more adventurous – sampling more exotic cuisines, farm-to-table, tasting menus and heirloom cultivars — our reasons for eating out can be centered more on the experience of food itself.
“The pulpo, the octopus, was exquisite,” says Sethi, who confesses to crying as she ate it — not because she was alone, but because she felt so connected to the world. “Every food and drink has a longer, deeper story connected to lands and people we may never see.”
We don’t have to trot around the globe to experience this. We only need a bit of curiosity, willingness to step out of our routine, and the ability to savor a well-prepared meal.
So why not consciously choose to dine alone, like a tourist sinking yourself into the sights, sounds and tastes of a new locale? Pick local restaurants that source intriguing ingredients, ask questions of your servers and praise a creative chef.
Be fascinated by the fact that your food is often sourced from far flung places around the world. Our tables, like the octopus with its tentacles, are never really of, or for, one, as Sethi elegantly shows us. They reach out in all directions to connect to the far-flung farmers, foragers, hunters, truckers, sorters, servers, chefs and guests who may silently join us at every meal.
Jill Neimark is an Atlanta-based writer whose work has been featured in Discover, Scientific American, Science, Nautilus, Aeon, Psychology Today and The New York Times.