Anyone who is familiar with the play or movie Shirley Valentine will recall the scene where Shirley, dining peacefully alone in the restaurant of her Greek hotel, is “rescued” by a couple at a nearby table from the ignominy of dining alone. This is not just a playwright’s fancy, I have discovered; the phenomenon is all too real.
“Is there anything more pathetic than a table for one?” asks a headline in Forbes magazine. The story begins “Is that a snide smile from the hostess? Did that couple just snicker and whisper behind their napkins? Is there anything more pathetic for a single woman than having to utter the words ‘Table for one’?”
This is by no means the only article of its kind to be found, and the theme is always the same: the hellish experience of being a woman eating out, in a restaurant, by herself. The articles all relate a litany of horror stories about disdainful host staff, pitying patrons, the long walk to a table for one that faces a blank wall or is beside the bathrooms, and the difficulty of catching the server’s eye because (apparently) being a woman dining alone gives one an invisibility cloak.
As a woman who has been married for 24 years, dining alone is not much of an issue for me these days; but a couple of weeks ago I found myself in Kamloops for the night while my husband underwent surgery. I decided that a nice meal in a restaurant was just the ticket, so off I went; and, in light of the dire warnings of the hell I was in for, I prepared for the worst.
“Table for one,” I said to the smiling hostess at the door, alert for any hint of a snide smile. Instead, I got a cheerful “Fine!” and was led into the restaurant. Rather than a dull, dingy table in the far back corner, so dark that I would need a flashlight to read the menu, I was given a bright table in the heart of the restaurant. “Enjoy!” said the hostess cheerfully.
My server was equally chipper; if she pitied my status as a woman, dining alone, she masked it with Oscar-worthy aplomb. I spent the next few minutes scanning the restaurant for people snickering and whispering behind their menus, but eventually had to give that up: partly because I could not see anyone who was obviously pitying my status, and partly because the server kept coming to the table to ask if I needed anything, because she thought I was trying to catch her eye.
I know what many of you are thinking: what on earth did I do with myself, since I was alone? Stare sadly at my plate and push bits of warm kale around as I listened to the conversations and laughter around me? Thankfully, I had prepared ahead and brought a magazine, which I read while munching on my meal. I could have brought my Samsung tablet and tapped into the free WiFi, but I’m old-school in these matters; besides, I probably would have spilled something on it, which is not an issue with Maclean’s magazine but would be with my tablet.
My advice? Ladies, ignore the dire warnings and march, unescorted, into a restaurant with your head held high. And take a magazine.