Danny Wallace on the downsides of dining alone
"People will think, 'Look at that strange man eating alone at 5pm"
Because I am a man of the world, I find no shame in eating alone. None at all!
I can eat alone in a restaurant. I can eat alone at a buffet, or at a wake, or on a cruise ship. And these days I can eat alone without even a scent of the self-consciousness that would have shot through me in the past.
In many ways, I prefer eating alone, which just 10 years ago I would have said was a phrase that would genuinely mark someone out as a sociopath.
But I am no sociopath, psychopath or cyclepath. I am merely someone who has discovered dining together is not necessarily better. I enjoy the liberating feeling that comes with being able to go to a restaurant at whatever time I choose and leave the second I want to. Of requesting the bill and getting out of there, instead of having to pretend I’m interested in pistachio ice cream.
And this evening, I shall dine alone and well, and weirdly close to 5pm, as I walk into the empty pizza restaurant near my hotel.
“We only serve pizzas in either 20 inches or by the slice,” says a woman behind a counter, and I nod as if to say, “This is fine”, but the truth is, I have in no way taken in what she said. It was just words. I look at the menu. Everything is described in a very fancy way. I order a half-and-half and simply sit there, looking around.
I do not need dinner props any more. I did not bring a book. My phone is still in my pocket. I am just a lone, staring man.
(Can I just stress again that I am not a psychopath.)
And then my pizza is ready, and I suddenly realise that 20 inches is much, much bigger than I’d been expecting. I just didn’t think about it. Pizzas are normally the size of a standard American frisbee, or perhaps the hubcap of a Mini.
But this? This is the size of a generic European dustbin lid.
“We will make pizzas the size of European dustbin lids!” they must have yelled in their planning meeting. “And as an alternative we will only offer a single slice!”
“What kind of place only offers pizzas that are either massive or by the slice?” I think, confounded. “This pizza is far too big for one man, yet a mere slice too slender to leave him sated!”
It’s a weird business decision. It’s like going to a car dealership, and them saying, “You can either have a wing mirror… or a lorry.”
It is then that I consider what I have actually ordered. On one giant half, beef. But on the other, I panicked and ordered something I thought might be nice. Now that I see it, I realise that I have essentially ordered a massive lamb and cabbage pizza.
Who on earth would order a massive lamb and cabbage pizza? Lamb and cabbage! Drizzled with yoghurt! Whose idea was that? Why not chicken and beetroot drizzled with Bovril? Why not quail and just a big carrot?
Someone walks past the window outside, and now I do start to feel self-conscious. I am well lit, and totally exposed. Anyone seeing me will not think, “Look at that lone diner, so comfortable in his own skin that he can sit with no sense of self-consciousness in a restaurant on his own, free from society’s pathetic expectations of starters and 7pm seatings and coffees and desserts.”
“I must rearrange the water glasses so that it looks like I have a dining companion who is merely absent”
No. They will think: “Look at that strange staring man who decided to go out on his own at 5pm and order a 20-inch lamb and cabbage pizza all for himself.”
Well, there’s only one thing for it. I must eat fast. And I must rearrange the water glasses so that it looks like I have a dining companion who is merely absent.
So I scoff some beef, and then I turn the pizza round and take a slice of lamb from the other side, so that it looks like my invisible companion is getting involved, and I bite into it, and I’ll tell you what: lamb and cabbage pizza tastes exactly the way you think lamb and cabbage pizza will taste. It is, to put it politely, not for me. In fact, I will go further and say I will probably never eat another lamb and cabbage pizza in my life. But I have to eat some. If I don’t, I’ll be sending a message to the chef – “people don’t want lamb and cabbage on a pizza”, and I can hardly let the poor sap know that, can I?
So I sit there, on my own, spinning a pizza round and round and attacking it from different angles. And I start to wonder what I’m doing.
Where has my confidence gone? What kind of fragile man am I that I would be worried complete strangers would think me a greedy guts? Am I really so delicate that I would worry about being seen dining alone at 5pm on a weird pizza the size of a Roman shield?
Yes I am.
I will not be dining alone for the foreseeable future. Mainly because as it turns out, I really, really need someone else to say, “You know she said 20 inches?”, “Let’s not sit right by the window” and, “Why the hell would you put lamb and cabbage on a pizza?!”
Turns out that’s why dining together is better.