Eating out. dining alone.
I remember reading, many years ago, an essay by Mary Cantwell about the pleasures of dining alone. She describes walking through the streets of New York and entering a Japanese restaurant, ordering sushi and a scotch-on-the-rocks, and realizing as she eats her maki and watches the chef at work and listens to the diners around her, that she is happy. Somehow this story has stayed with me all these years, as she writes about eating in a London restaurant before her husband has arrived, or in other restaurants in other cities. I think of her when I have lunch at Palomino or the pub down the street, reading a book, which she says never to do.
But tonight I reward myself with dinner at La Spiga, after work, and I am alone, without a book to hide behind. I think of her, how she wrote about standing up very straight when she went into a very nice restaurant wearing casual clothes, I ask for a table, chin up, shoulders back, not minding that I can't actually remember whether I brushed my hair or not this morning. After a moment's pause, as the hostess studies the reservations book and wonders where to put me, I am led to one of the booths near the bar, at the front of the restaurant.
Encased in a booth of dark wood and leather the color of bitter chocolate, I can see the bar to my left - a wrought-iron railing seperating it from the rest of the room, gleaming bottles and glasses suspended overhead - and the front door, through which floods of diners stream past. Leaning back, I order a glass of wine, and my dinner. But I cannot see behind me, and my waiter moves so silently (he is impossibly tall and slim, like an Erté drawing, gliding along the floor to some rhythm I can't feel) that first a bundle of silverware, then a glass of water and a goblet of wine, and finally, the food appear on my table, without warning, only the clink of china against wood signalling its presence. I feel like a traveler in a fairy tale, who has stumbled upon a magician's castle, and finds himself seated, all alone, at the head of a table upon which elaborate dishes quietly materialize as if by magic.
I have ordered tortelli, thin sheets of dough filled with mashed potatoes and pancetta, draped with slices of prosciutto and other cured meats so fine that they seem to float. The tortelli are a bit like pasta, and a bit like bread, and I fold them over into sandwiches as I eat them. There is a plate of grilled endive, slick with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt, charred around the edges, a little bitter, a little salty, with the fruitiness of the oil binding the flavors together. To finish, I have the smoothest panna cotta I have ever eaten, tasting of pure cream, in a pool of deep orange syrup, slices of fruit contrasting gently with the pudding. I am flushed with wine and food and happiness, and the six blocks home are over in a flash.