Table For One
In the last month, I have had bombil fry, salmon mousse on toast, wonton soup, kothimbir vadi, a Kerala banana leaf thali, a Gujarati thali, a breakfast buffet, and dal pakwan at restaurants across the city. I ate all of these meals by myself, each at a different establishment. It’s something I like doing—eating alone. I’ve done it for years.
Of course, most often I eat out with friends and family. But I am also given to hearing about a new restaurant in, for example, Saki Naka or Sewri, leading to an insatiable need to try them out for myself. Convincing a friend to make the trek with me involves debilitating bribes, if not a heavy debt of time. Sometimes I will find a fellow intrepid food-lover who shares my curious condition but given that most people have day jobs, it takes days, if not weeks, of planning and coordination to agree upon a mutual time slot for a far-off lunch. Plus, it’s risky dining. If the food sucks, I have wasted somebody else’s time, and quite likely lost their company for future expeditions.
It’s just simpler and easier to go by myself. A lunch meeting got cancelled? There’s this new Malvani place I passed by in Parel a few days ago. Cabin fever on a slow writing day? There has got to be a place on my list of untried spots that will allow me to sit at a table for hours post-lunch with my notebook and pen. No calls, no coordination required, only unthinking spontaneity.
But it’s not always about trying a new place. Sometimes it’s because I’m out on work, it’s lunchtime, I’m hungry, and there’s a restaurant nearby that I know and like. Eating alone is much more comfortable when you’re in a familiar place. A few weeks ago, I was in the Ballard Estate area for a meeting. It was a weekday, it was lunch time. There was no way I was going to pass up this chance to eat at Britannia. It had been over a year since I’d had their bombil fry, salli boti (with their homestyle chapatis), or berry pulao. It also wouldn’t be the first time I dined solo at Britannia, so I knew the routine.
One of owner Boman Kohinoor Irani’s sons would be at the cash counter. He’d look at me, then over my shoulder, and say, “It’s just you?!” and then look around for a table on the periphery of the restaurant that would be suitable for a single lady. (Most often it is the one in the far left corner where the staff hovers in between serving and clearing tables.) Then the senior Mr. Irani would come over and ask me if I am okay, and if I’m waiting for anyone, and if there is anything he can get me. When he hears that I’m alone, he’ll stay for a bit and share some anecdotes (my favourite one involves US presidents and postcards).
Over the years, I have found that there are several undeniable advantages to dining alone. The food becomes the focus, without any distractions from conversation. You can order as much or as little as you like, of exactly what you want to eat. You can treat the table like your dinner table or your desk, spread the food out and use a laptop. You can be as messy as you like, as long as it doesn’t involve sounds (like slurping or dropping cutlery), which might draw attention from nearby tables. It feels like a mini vacation, a little time to eat something fun, and maybe read, and unwind by yourself. You can discover new places and then introduce them to friends. (Incidentally, solo female diners get the best service because they are such a curiosity for the staff.)
A few tips for those who dare:
• Start with a place where you are a regular, where you love the food and the staff recognises you. This even works well for bars. I often went by myself for Ghetto’s Monday movie nights (which they stopped a couple of years ago, sadly), and the former doorman Shuklaji and server Ravi would greet me warmly every time. Mondegar still feels like home, even if I am having breakfast by myself.
• Hotel coffee shops and cafes are excellent places for the solo diner because guests often eat there alone. Almost as easy, are small, quick-service places that cater to a working-class crowd. Places like Purepur Kolhapur in Vile Parle, Friends Union Joshi Club in Kalbadevi, Kamats all over the city, Hotel Deluxe in Fort, Kailash Parbat in Colaba. Some of the best regional and community foods are found at such places, and they are generally so busy that they have little time to wonder why you’re sitting by yourself.
• Most of the places featured on this website as Oldie But Goodies make for comfortable solo dining. Yes, even Ling’s Pavilion, but mostly for lunch.
• Eating alone is made much easier when the restaurant has a bar (and they don’t mind you eating your meal at it); a communal table; or is an all-day establishment that encourages you to bring your laptop by offering free wi-fi. Mumbai has been getting more places that offer at least one of these: Out of the Blue, Indigo Deli, The Table, 36 Oak & Barley, Cafe Zoe, and Le Pain Quotidien to name a few. At these places, you can sit at the bar, or at one end of the communal table rather than at a table for two (or four) by yourself. You can also visit them in between regular meal times, when they are relatively less crowded.
• If you go to a place and it is crowded, sit on the peripheral tables, so that you can people watch, but there aren’t too many people who can watch you. However, it always helps if the manager can see you.
• Always carry a book, newspaper or magazine or a smartphone or a tablet, if you are so inclined. If you’re reading, you look busy, you have a sense of purpose, and therefore look less lonely.
• Lunch alone is easier to pull off than dinner. This is because during working hours, it’s fairly plausible that you just happen to be the neighbourhood in between office assignments or when everyone you know is busy. Unless you’re a solo hotel guest, dining solo at night takes a thicker skin, because it may look like no one wants to dine with you.Tags: Britannia, Solo dining, The Tastemaker