Une table pour un, s'il vous plait
Dining out is one of my favorite things to do, whether it's at a place that's trendy and hip, or at a cozy, family-run place, or at an elegant, Michelin-starred establishment. It could be a hole in the wall or it can be that place that requires men to wear jackets and for everyone to speak in a hushed voice--if it's got out-of-this-world food and ambiance, I'm down!
That said, eating solo when you're grabbing a hot dog from a cart in Rockefeller Center is one thing; occupying a table meant for two in a fine restaurant in Paris and leaving one of the chairs empty is another.
Even if you've never been here, you're aware that this city has no shortage of amazing restaurants. And if you know me, you also know that I'm not going to let my being alone stop me from eating at as many of them as time and my credit card will allow. After all, I've never had an issue going to a restaurant alone before. I've done it in New York many, many times, and actually looked forward to have a "Jude Day" once in a while, when I would splurge on a nice dinner at a fine restaurant by myself. It's not uncommon, especially in the major cities of the world. Yet I've never had to do it so often, which has led me to some observation of "a table for one."
First of all, I've been surprised to find that not all restaurants seem to allow a reservation for one person. For months prior to my trip, I would often get sucked into the rabbit hole of the internet, which has no shortage of "best restaurants" in a plethora of categories. Whether it be by arrondissement or by mealtime or by type of food or by price or by chef's age/gender/ethnicity--you name it, and it has been researched, ranked, published. Let's just say I have a list of restaurants almost as long as my Netflix queue, far more than I can ever eat in over a span of three months. Nor does this take into account the restaurants I come across every day in my wanderings that look worth checking out as well. (The list keeps growing!)
Some culling and prioritization is therefore needed. In terms of the hot, expensive restaurants, I can only afford to go to a relative few of those, so I've been trying to decide which are most worthy. Near the top of my list is Gregory Marchand's Frenchie, one of the hottest restaurants in Paris right now--also one of the tiniest. Being from New York, I'm not unfamiliar with the concept of booking months ahead for the "IT" restaurant, so the first week I arrived, I went online to book a table at Frenchie, only to discover that it is impossible to reserve a table for one person! While I understand it's a small restaurant, the unfairness of this is vexing.
That is the exception rather than the rule, however, and generally there is no issue. That said, you certainly never get one of the best tables in the room. You get seated at the cramped table, the one near the kitchen or the bathroom, the one out of the way. I've often thought I might pretend I'm a restaurant critic, just to see what might happen! Nevertheless, I get my table and I am happy.
Then there is the issue of "how to be." To some extent, this depends upon the type of restaurant and the size of the table, because while I can always whip out my pen and notebook to write, it seems odd to do so in a more elegant setting where the last thing I want to be is distracted from my gorgeous surroundings. Also, if the table is tiny (usually is), it's not easy to make space for my notebook between my glass of wine, my glass of Badoit and my bread (bread, bread, always bread!). Another less space-consuming option is a book, but in such a dynamic setting, I find it difficult to concentrate. Also, in Paris, I try not to blatantly advertise my American-ness, and reading a book in English is a dead giveaway. The thing is, with the exception of your average cafe (and even then, there's the people-watching!), whatever kind of restaurant I find myself in, part of my joy comes from soaking up everything about the experience--not just savoring the food, but watching the bustle in the room, sniffing the grilled meat and sautéed fish and wine and perfume of the woman next to me, tuning into the background music playing beneath the gentle clink of cutlery and ambient murmur of dozens of conversations.
I'm not adding to that murmur, of course, but I'm enjoying it nonetheless. Because in most of the restaurants in Paris, just as in New York, the tables tend to be very close together. While I wouldn't call it eavesdropping exactly, I can't help but overhear conversations at the tables next to me, and these interest not only the writer in me, but here in Paris, I see it as just another opportunity to "study" my French.
To come back to my fundamental question, then, if I'm just sitting there by myself, with no one to speak with, how do I comport myself? How do I sit there without seeming lonely (which I'm not) or pathetic (which I certainly hope I'm not)? How do I relax and enjoy every aspect of the experience? This is basically the quandary of pretty much every aspect of my life: not only, how do I stay in the present moment, but how do I enjoy it for the amazing moment it is and understand how fortunate I am?
Don't be frightened, I'm not going to veer off into the philosophical here, but let's say I haven't completely figured it all out yet, and that eating out alone multiple times in a row gets a bit less fun over time, but I'm grateful in this regard for being a New Yorker who long ago mastered what I call "the Subway Gaze." The Subway Gaze is an urban jungle survival tactic that gives the impression that you are looking, but not seeing. This allows your eyes to be aimed directly at the crotch of someone standing in front of you on the crowded train, yet you don't see it. This allows you to stare into the throng of sardined bodies without being able to identify a single individual. This allows you to look in the direction of a glaring gang member without appearing terrified. It's tuning out. It's a way of closing your eyes, though your lids stay open. And yet you can see, if you choose to--and if you do it right, no one will know!
Clearly, any trepidation I've had about dining alone has not stopped me, and thank goodness for that, because last Saturday I had two of the best meals of my life. This sounds like an exaggeration, even to me--purveyor of hyperbole--but this is the truth.
The first meal of the day was brunch at Mariages Freres. I have adore this French tea room since my first visit to Paris in 1995. The place is just downright classy--waiters in white linen suits, a somewhat hushed ambiance that seems to revere a menu that offers approximately 400 different teas from all over world. I always need the waiter to suggest what tea to try, and he's never wrong. This time around, I ordered Le Brunch Classique, and I wasn't exactly sure what I was getting because I refuse to allow myself to get any menu in English, but the parts I could translate sounded good.
The meal was phenomenal: a bowl of very softly scrambled eggs perfectly seasoned with herbs, a twist of Norwegian salmon, several large and delectable shrimp, and dots of what tasted like avocado creme fraiche. To drink, there was freshly squeezed jus de pamplemousse rose (pink grapefruit juice) and the Opera Blue tea. Did I say blue? Mais oui, blue like Tidy-Bowl--and if Tidy-Bowl had this heavenly aroma and delicate taste of flowers and vanilla, I'd be drinking it by the gallon!
The service at Marriages Freres is certainly not rushed, so in this case, I did take out my notebook and pen and write a bit while I waited, but I really didn't want to miss a moment. I was sitting beneath a skylight and could see the sky and leaves of the trees above and the room itself vibrated with a sophisticated energy. Not insignificantly, too, I was seated at the middle table of three tables shoved very closely together and next to me was a gay couple who spoke English and whose conversation took me on an emotional rollercoaster ride. They were both extremely handsome: a very tall, blond Dutch guy who could be on the cover of GQ and a petite Asian man with an American accent. They weren't big talkers and when they did speak, they did so quietly, but while they started out talking delightedly about the tea and what they would do the rest of the day in Paris, at some point, my eyes flickered up to see the big Dutch man crying. He tried to hide his face in the linen napkin, but his eyelids were lined with red and his pupils bloodshot. I heard the Asian man saying something along the lines of, "I've been feeling I need to get out of my comfort zone," and I thought to myself, Damn you! It's not cool to make someone cry at Mariages Freres, or in Paris, or you know what--anywhere! I wanted to hug the Dutch guy, but all I could do was stare into the blue abyss of my teacup and pretend I didn't notice what was going on centimeters away from me.
They were gone by the time my dessert came (it was part of the brunch--what could I do?), and I was glad there was no sadness to taint the perfection of whatever this thing was that I had pointed at on le chariot. It looked beautiful and the waiter explained to me what it was, but I couldn't figure out everything he said. What my tongue figured out was that it had a center of sweet cherry surrounded by what tasted like panna cotta, and this was sitting on a crunchy bed of...sweet chopped praline perhaps? I don't know, but I took a long time with that dessert because I wanted it to last me till I'm dead.
That meal held me over for a while, but around nine o'clock that night, it was time to eat again and I was in the mood to try a Moroccan place I'd read about. Somehow I didn't think I'd need a reservation and I felt convinced of it when my phone's GPS led me down the narrow, deserted street where Le 404 is located. When I walked in, however, I was disappointed, because the place was jam-packed and there was no way I was getting a table. As it turned out, there's a garden in the back--a rectangular garden nestled between buildings on all sides, ivy hanging down from the walls, bamboo shooting up from the ground.
What I haven't yet mentioned is that by this hour, the weather had become quite chilly, but this garden was happening, with a continual flow of people arriving for dinner. I was a bit cold, but the atmosphere was fantastic. Even better, I think I may have been the only American--at last! All of this was almost as wonderful as the food. It was difficult to choose from the extensive menu, but I settled on stuffed fresh sardines to start followed by a tagine of chicken, preserved lemon and olives. The chicken in that tagine was not like any chicken I have ever tasted. I think it was a different bird altogether. The meat was impossibly moist and tender and bursting with the flavor of that preserved lemon. If I could cook a chicken like that, I could have any man I want! (Don't worry, Ken--I'd still choose you!) To finish, I had a simple but perfect salad of sliced oranges with orange blossom and cinnamon, accompanied by a glass of Moroccan mint tea.
The following day, I went to the marche in the morning, determined to eat all my meals at home that day and maybe even the next. Believe it or not, I do that sometimes. And I eat well at home, too. The fruit in Paris is on a whole other level--I may never eat cantaloupe in the States ever again--and the variety of charcuterie and cheese and pates to choose from is honestly overwhelming. I've had a pate made with fresh figs that blew my mind. I buy my perfectly crunchy baguettes at an award-winning boulangerie nearby. And an enormous shout-out to the cows of Bordier. Both the butter and the fresh yogurt I've been eating since I arrived hail from Bordier and I have no idea where that is in France, but it must be a very magical place indeed.
All that, plus a glass of Provencal rose, and gastronomically speaking, I am truly living la vie en rose!