I was sixteen and returning with my parents from visiting family in Switzerland when, on somewhat of a whim, it was decided that I should join a friend who was spending the summer in Paris under the pretense of having an internship. The two of us caromed wide-eyed for a week or so between the obvious sights and the less trod. On our last evening we found what I recall as a decent, if typical restaurant somewhere near the Place de la Bastille. I faced my friend at a small table, and we ate three courses of solid bistro food washed down with cheap Beaujolais—which might sound hopelessly banal if, for a moment, one forgets how green in matters of food and drink the average teenager is. Directly behind my friend, facing me, was a gentleman neatly dressed in odd jacket and neckerchief. He ate alone, though ate is hardly the best verb in this instance. He considered his progression of dishes—none of which had been offered us—as one would semi-precious stones. He swirled and sniffed at his wine, tumbling half ounce increments in his mouth until his demi was finished. When his digestif arrived, he held it to the light before hovering a quivering eye over the rim, testing, one can only imagine, the rate at which the volatiles escaped.
I might not be able to say with certainty what my friend and I did during our time in Paris, the events since muddied by subsequent visits. But I will never forget that magnificent man, his great, watery eyeball, or the bloom of satisfaction that grew in place of the contemplation that had rippled across his face until the end. He was savoring things, I would come to understand, and he meant to do it alone.
But to eat alone requires rehearsal, as diving into a public, wine-complemented meal might confound rather than edify. An unadorned ham sandwich is a good place to begin, as it serves to divine preferences. Permit the sandwich to make itself; nine out of ten times, mine manifest as shaved rosemary ham on day-old baguette. The tenth might appear as jamon serrano on toasted pullman, if not for variety, then to calibrate expectations. What if I had been wrong about the first nine sandwiches?
Baseline established, venture out. Few share my enthusiasm for salad, and so I often prepare ambitious ones full of nuggets of bacon and brioche when I eat alone. A chicken is meant to share, but duck confit is ideal for the individual. I have a secret passion for overcooked steaks and chops, where the flesh is less about succulence than the pleasure of correctly using both incisor and molar. Also, hot English mustard seems less criminal than it would slathered on painstakingly cooked morsels. Tough joints, richly braised, are terrific for feeding groups, but a few scraps of stew meat in broth and mirepoix is a fine solitary meal. Here the small effort and long cooking period feels particularly rewarding. Where a crowd might want starchy potatoes or noodles for the braising sauce, I’m happiest with day-old bread; any staleness just means greater capacity for drawing in sauce. A solitary meal permits those sybaritic tendencies.
The same self-indulgent spirit should be extended to what gets drunk. I’m reminded of Bertie Wooster who often pesters Jeeves for half a bot of something to accompany his late night omelette or plate of sandwiches, in that I have respect for the classic pairings, but as long as I am not in danger of breaching someone’s cemented expectations, I serve myself what I please, or, as is often the case, what’s on hand. If the latter, scraps of red and white often haunt my fridge, and what doesn’t go in a pot for a sauce gets unceremoniously poured in a jam jar alongside dinner. If the former—drinking whatever I fancy—I am usually led to something bubbly. Champagne is unique amongst other wine, as it accompanies no food perfectly, but everything else so well. Would eyebrows be raised at the sight of pink Champagne next to a small beef daube? I can’t say, as I’m always alone when it occurs.
Of course the instant an additional set of preferences is introduced, the possibility for perfect indulgence is compromised. My wife would be sorely disappointed if nothing more exciting than semi-stale bread came with her stew. She doesn’t tolerate salad, and, while it is remarkable that we have successfully formed any sort of union whatsoever considering the egregious position, she won’t touch Champagne for fear of heartburn. Some things, it seems, really are best practiced alone.
Dining out alone is doctorate level, and if arrived at, does not require explanation. I will say this, though. I spent a pleasant (if unreliable) three years reviewing restaurants in Chicago for major print and online media. I was given significant budgets and always instructed to exhaust them, a task that never posed difficulty. Friends gladly joined, which maximized the dishes that could be tasted, and I’m certain the gig played a significant role in meeting and keeping the woman who would become my wife. There was a problem though: through all the companionship and budding romance, intelligently tasting anything was a challenge, and the restaurants I was assigned deserved (and editors demanded) more than cursory treatments. And so I often returned, on my own dime, alone. Only then did the discordant clove reveal itself despite the squab being so ideally roasted. Today, even without a looming deadline, the same holds true: eating alone amplifies the senses.