It’s been a busy week and the blog’s birthday almost passed me by. I remembered the cat’s birthday (she was 8 on Thursday) because I had to sign a contract when I got her from a rescue home and her birthday is on the contract. She got extras of her favourite treats.
It was my brother Adam’s birthday on Friday; friend Rona’s on Saturday; friend Annie’s tomorrow. What a lot of Leo friends I have! And I guess it’s a rather appropriate star sign – if you’re into astrology, and I am a bit – for the blog, with positive qualities like ‘enthusiasm’, ‘magnanimity of spirit and an infectious love of life’; ‘they also like … good food, wine, the arts, the opera, anything with passion and verve’ (The Astrology Bible by Judy Hall). It was WordPress that alerted me to the blog’s 4th birthday: ‘Happy Anniversary’ they sent in a message yesterday.
The blog has become so much part of my life, enriching it in ways I’d never have guessed at the outset, that I can hardly believe it’s only 4 years. Was it really only 4 years ago that I was tentatively publishing my first post – The Single Gourmet Traveller & Greek Aubergine Salad – for a bit of fun and no clear intentions. I was lucky enough to receive a lot of encouragement early on from local restaurateurs Tim Healy and Lawrence Hartley, who’ve now moved on to two of my other favourite restaurants, Joe Allen and Orso in Covent Garden (click here). Others followed, massively generous chefs and other restaurateurs who let me interview them (click here). I’ve branched out and try new restaurants more often; I’ve become much more experimental and adventurous in my cooking at home. I’ve enjoyed doing more research of places I visit and classic recipes I cook than I ever did before.
My first – and really only – intention at the outset though was to normalise solo dining and solo travelling. I wanted to find places where people could eat or stay on their own and feel comfortable and welcomed. At the time it wasn’t as common a thing to talk about as now. There was a sadness attached to the idea of dining in a restaurant alone: people perceived it as something difficult and perhaps embarrassing, as if it signalled you had no one to eat with rather than it sometimes being a choice. Now it’s become a fashionable thing to do. I caught on Jay Rayner’s page in today’s Observer that ‘Open Table has seen a 110% rise in solo bookings over the past two years … a One Poll survey … found that 87% of British diners would have no problem eating alone.’
For me, solo dining has always been a norm. Not because I’m frequently eating alone – I’m not – but because it was something encouraged by my parents as I grew up. We didn’t have a huge amount of money but what spare there was we spent of meals in some of the best restaurants in London or eating great food on holiday. I learnt that even when out on your own you are still entitled to seek a good meal; you don’t have to hide in some miserable little restaurant or cafe or limit yourself to takeaways to eat on a park bench. Confidence to walk into a restaurant on my own was instilled in me. It’s a great bonus when travelling alone. One of my most wonderful recent eating experiences – in fact ever! – was going alone to Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy last year. I have to admit that even I – after all I’ve said above – was a bit intimidated as I turned up but was immediately made to feel so welcome, as if eating alone in a fine restaurant was perfectly normal, that I just loved it.
I rarely go to local restaurants alone because I’d rather cook at home, but I have no problem eating alone on holiday or when out and about. I’ve taken to having day trips into London occasionally when work is quiet and mixing maybe a visit to an art gallery with a nice lunch. These have been great opportunities to try out places like Bocca di Lupo, Brasserie Zedel and Palomar. I sat at the bar in these restaurants and watched food prepared in the open kitchen at two, which was great fun. That’s also a nice diversion when on your own and in a way it’s easier to focus on the food and the experience. We’ve all probably had the experience of going to a nice restaurant and being so caught up in conversation with our companion(s) that we’ve paid little attention to the food itself. This is another thing that has changed with the blog, especially of course if I’m planning to write a post: I really taste carefully and think about the food. For instance, last week at The Ivy Market Grill Annie and I talked about all kinds of things, as good friends do, but we did also take notice of what we ate and discussed it.
Part of eating alone is not missing out. If I’m having a day out or going on holiday, why would I want to miss out on good food just because I’m alone (well, that’s if you’re into food big time like me!). It’s not just the food but, especially on holiday, the atmosphere. It’s great to sit in a restaurant full of locals in, let’s say, Greece or Italy, and hear that buzz all around; watch how they interact, how and what they eat. But I’ve also found that people are much more likely to talk to me and start up a conversation when I’m by myself than ever happened in my married days or when I travel with friends. And I’ve become more confident to start up conversations myself. Thus, I find some of the concepts around now about solo dining a bit strange. Photos of Amsterdam’s Eenmaal restaurant just for solo diners looks like a nightmare to me. It looks like a soulless office with workstations instead of tables. That is one place I do not want to eat! I think the idea behind it comes from an old-fashioned belief that there’s something embarrassing or odd about solo dining. And maybe that’s also why some restaurants will try to sit you in a corner, away from everyone else. Say no! Refuse! They’re missing the point that even if you’re dining alone you want the same experience as when you’re with friends. When I arrive in a restaurant, I’m ready to say if I don’t like the seat I’m offered and will politely ask for a different table. Russell Norman, founder of the Polpo group, is a frequent solo diner: ‘I’ve always enjoyed dining alone in restaurants and have always encouraged it in my places too’ (Daily Telegraph, February 2015). This is part of the healthy new understanding.
What to do while you wait for your food? That’s the great dilemma and one many people find hard. I used to take a book or newspaper with me but now it’s so much easier with smartphones. After I’ve looked at the menu and decided what to eat and drink, I’ll often check my iPhone (having turned it on to silent) for texts and emails and then read something on my Kindle app. I don’t like reading whole books on a tablet (it’s the book editor in me) but I load short stories that I can then access on my phone and are ideal for sitting in restaurants and cafes, or on a train. When the food comes, I put it away. I’m there for the food; I want to appreciate and enjoy the food. That’s the great thing. It’s total and wonderful indulgence; just me and my meal; no one to distract me.
I baked a cake on Friday – a cherry, almond and spelt cake from Diana Henry’s A Change of Appetite. (She uses gooseberries but suggests cherry alternative.) My friends Linda and George arrived from Spain for the weekend and I made the cake for dessert for our Friday evening meal. So … let it be a birthday cake. The blog’s birthday deserves some celebration. And long may it have more birthdays!