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Double Helpings of Advice for Women Travelers Dining Solo

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

In the 1955 movie “Summertime” there is a scene with Katharine Hepburn sitting alone at a cafe in Venice’s Piazza San Marco. She plays a maiden lady from Ohio, gamely coping with solitude but painfully needy, come to Italy “to find what she’s been missing all her life.” She fidgets, adjusts her collar, points her camera across the piazza and tries to get the waiter’s attention, without success.

The young Hepburn makes a rather unconvincing needy spinster, and when the camera fastens on the heart-palpitating figure of Rossano Brazzi, alone but perfectly comfortable at a table nearby, there can be little doubt about where the film is headed. Still, for women who dine out alone, especially abroad, the cafe scene rings excruciatingly true. Solo dining in restaurants makes some so uneasy that they grab meals in food stalls and order room service in hotels to avoid the ordeal, or solve the problem--sadly--by not traveling at all.

Several years ago in New York, I took myself to the renowned French restaurant Lutece. It was early afternoon, so the normally formal atmosphere was somewhat relaxed and I could easily afford the fixed-price lunch. The glassware glistened, the service was flawless and the quail in puff pastry tasted divine.

But the longer I sat there, surrounded by couples bearing “the overly conspicuous marks of extreme happiness” (as Colette put it in one short story), the more like an eyesore I felt. When one waiter politely asked why I was alone, I detected pity in his tone. So I lied, saying my husband was doing business in New York and I had come along.

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At Lutece I was treated magnificently, which is not universally the case in restaurants, as women who make a habit of eating out alone know. When faced with rudeness or bad service, I simply walk out. But for me--and many other women, I suspect--the challenges of dining alone are more subtle than mistreatment, touching on matters as basic as self-image.

Edward Abramson, the author of “Emotional Eating: What You Need to Know Before Starting Another Diet” (Jossey-Bass, 1998), says people feel that eating out alone implies they don’t have friends. He suspects that it’s harder for women than men “because women are typically more self-conscious about eating.”

And many women worry about attracting unwanted attention from men, as Marya Charles Alexander, editor and publisher of a newsletter called Solo Dining Savvy, points out. Happily, she reports, more and more restaurants are becoming sympathetic to the unique agonies of solo diners. Some ask those who arrive alone if they’d care to be seated with someone else, or set up clusters of small tables or one big community table to encourage socializing.

Those who really want to eat out alone should dress well and make a reservation in order to get the best treatment, Alexander advises. From my years of traveling and eating out alone I’ve picked up other strategies, such as dining early or late to avoid the rush.

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Lunches in fancy restaurants can be easier to handle (and cheaper) than dinners, as are meals at the bar--such as the time I took a seat at the Bar Lyonnais, downstairs at Le Bec-Fin, one of Philadelphia’s best eateries. There I made friends with the couple ‘I’ve stomped out of restaurants that displeased me everywhere from Auckland to Istanbul, sometimes finding nothing else to eat and going to bed hungry.’

sitting next to me, who let me taste their sorbet sampler for dessert.

I read somewhere that if you surreptitiously take notes during a meal, the staff will think you’re a restaurant critic and give you slavish good service. I’ve tried it, and occasionally it works. I’ve tried everything, because for me, not eating isn’t an option. I burn calories like dry tinder when sightseeing, and require a high-fat snack and three square meals a day. I’ve stomped out of restaurants that displeased me everywhere from Auckland to Istanbul, sometimes finding nothing else to eat and going to bed hungry. I’ve pressed my nose against the windows of many a beautiful restaurant, deciding I just couldn’t face going in alone. So I, too, have resorted to casual sidewalk cafes, food stalls and room service--all of which can be just what you want, or can make you feel more alone than solitary dinners in crowded restaurants.

Attracting male attention is another story altogether. After all, who can say what is unwanted before the fact? By myself at trattoriae in Rome, where cruising men are as common as cats, I felt vaguely depressed because no one even tried to come on to me. At a rather squalid restaurant in northern Beijing, I tried to stay aloof from the chain-smoking men seated at the big round table where I’d been placed--until they insisted that I try their Peking duck.

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And I’m still wondering what psychological dysfunction was at work in the Englishman seated next to me one summer evening at a sidewalk cafe in Arles, France. We talked amiably all through the steak-frites, but halfway through post-prandial espressos he told me I shouldn’t have come out in public in the rather modest black dress I was wearing, then got up and left.

I can laugh about it because now nothing fazes me when it comes to dining alone in foreign places.

It was at a restaurant in Paris I’ll never forget, called L’Auberge des Deux Signes, that I learned what is positively wonderful about a woman dining alone. I had spent the day riding around the city on a bike, in the rain, and had then retired to my rather dumpy budget hotel room to dress for dinner.

At the restaurant, near the Church of St.-Julien-le-Pauvre, the napkins were mauve linen and there was a fork for every food group. I read curiosity on the faces of the couples seated near me. Sometimes they glanced my way. I sipped my wine, contemplating its bouquet, and ate slowly, with a pensive expression. When dessert came, I saw that the man and woman at the table next to me were looking at me again, though this time they smiled. Not in a forward way, but mildly, with approval. I was someone compelling, a mystery. A woman with a man is a couple. A woman alone can be anyone.

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“Be a fearless cook,” Julia Child wrote--which I’d amend. Let someone else do the cooking, and be a fearless diner.

Here are a few restaurants where I’ve dined alone contentedly:

L’Auberge des Deux Signes, 46 Rue Galande, Paris (5th arrondissement); telephone 011-33-1-4325-4656.

Chez Paul, 13 Rue de Charonne, Paris (11th arrondissement); tel. 011-33-1-4700-3457.

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Bar Lyonnais at Le Bec-Fin, 1523 Walnut St., Philadelphia; tel. (215) 567-1000.

Brennan’s, 417 Royal St., New Orleans; tel. (504) 525-9711.

Sor’Eva, Piazza della Rovere, Rome; tel. 011-39-6-687-5797.

Plus a newsletter: Solo Dining Savvy, P.O. Box 1025, South Pasadena, CA 91031; tel. (800) 299-1079.

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This new column about women’s travel will appear weekly. Spano, who joined the Travel staff recently, is a seasoned traveler who has freelanced widely. She will also write destination stories for Travel.


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