When I put my only child on a plane to adulthood about twenty years ago, my sense of freedom and relief of having brought him up successfully, alive, healthy, well educated and free of a criminal record or addiction was so overwhelming, that I decided to go celebrate – alone – just with my sense of power. I chose Stars Café, Jeremiah Tower’s casual one off restaurant, which was exciting without being oppressing. It was early, and when I walked in, it was empty. A girl of barely drinking age chatting up someone on the phone didn’t turn around when I entered the empty restaurant, so I pulled up a chair at a corner table.
After chatting a bit further, the girl turned around and hissed: You can’t sit there. Single diners have to sit at the bar along the wall by the door. Chic and probably a lot of fun when the restaurant was packed the deserted stretch of zinc (I think) was less than inviting. I would have felt like pole sticking up out of the ground. I said no. She scowled but said I could sit upstairs. I agreed with relief, and she directed me what I remember as 14 inch table on the landing at the top of the stairs, in direct traffic. It was the dunce seat, or looked that way.
Picturing myself trying to make myself invisible by curling into an ever smaller ball as each new arriving party came straight at my lonesome profile as they topped the stairs, I declined. She refused to do anything else. Feeling neither powerful, successful nor free, just alone and out of place, I left. The restaurant was still empty. I think I cried a little.
I mentioned it to a friend, Joyce Goldstein, the owner of Square One, another great restaurant which changed San Francisco’s dining forever. “You have to tell Jeremiah,” she said. “He has to know.” I hadn’t met Jeremiah yet, having just taken over the family food business, and I wasn’t very positively inclined toward him, but I followed her advice. A fabulously horrified and charming letter arrived nearly the next day. “By Return,” as they say. I have loved the man ever since.
It was one of my early practical lessons in restaurant reality: Employers set policy, employees screw it up. Jeremiah’s policies, like Jeremiah, were gracious. The hostess was a snot. I’ve seen it enough times since, and so have you, but it rarely bothers me as much as it did that evening, probably because when it happens I am not alone.
Except today: Thanks to the negligence of a neighbor’s irresponsible contractor my house has no walls, ceilings, or floors. I don’t have a dining room or a dining room table. I can’t have friends over for dinner, and I am not getting out a lot. It’s my birthday.
I hate birthdays. My current mindset is somewhere between perpetual funk and junk yard dog mean, so I attempted an attitude tune up by getting out and playing hooky from work with nice scenery and lunch after the last contractor of the day told me how many thousand dollars more the upgrades would cost than my insurance pays.
Since I had something to deliver to the beach, I chose a restaurant with a heart stopping view of today’s breathtakingly blue ocean. I entered the expansive, barely populated dining room at about 11:30 and asked to be seated by the window. The hostess warbled sweetly, “I have difficulty seating singles at the window.” “But today,” I snarled, “you can, because it’s my birthday, you are empty, I am in a crappy mood, and I know the owners.” (I do, and they are wonderful people and exceptional restaurateurs, but I am profoundly ashamed of saying it – How rude..) She did. I wrote the owner.
It’s been a while since I have felt uncomfortable eating alone, so I am surprised that these thing still happen. Looking back I realize, though, that since the Stars Cafe event, I have avoided it. I’ll even take a sandwich to a hotel room and mope, rather than risking the single diner slap in the face. I also wonder if the fact that I am a woman no longer young played a part – A young man was sitting at a deuce at the window. Perhaps he made the decision easier for the hostess by slipping her a tip, but then, most of the view tables were in fact four tops with small tables away from the windows, so perhaps she was thinking of the larger tips expected from a happily drinking group of four. or just logistics, if a rush occurred. It’s a nice place for lunch (or dinner or brunch).
When I left there were still window tables available.
There was a while when the press spoke about single business diners and single women in restaurants a lot. No longer. Perhaps it’s time to open a dialogue, or at least a monologue on the matter, so here are a few points in favor of seating the single diner in the prime locations.
1) It’s a nice thing to do. The group of four are not going to be spending most of their time looking out the window or enjoying the dining room choreographies. They will be laughing and chatting. The single diner will appreciate whatever you have to offer more.
2) I, at least, feel exposed eating alone. I suspect it’s not just me. Looking out a window or sitting against a wall helps for some reason.
3) If the ambiance is a view, then a single diner is going to have to look past four or six people to see it. The group of four or six will be closer and have to look past only one, who probably won’t be blocking it much..
4) You don’t know who that single diner is/you don’t know who you are pissing off. You don’t know how many friends they might bring back with them. They may be regulars (I had been at this restaurant many times).
5) Singles tend to eat faster. You will have the table back soon enough.
6) First come, first serve.
7) It’s good Karma.
8) Not treating single diners the same way you treat groups is discrimination. It’s not illegal, but it poses a few ethical questions.
7) You do not raise the suspicion that you want your snotty palm crossed with green.
8) People with a higher pique and lacking a blog are likely to vent against the restaurant rather than the practice both with their friends and on YELP. (I don’t). (Ever).
This incident made me feel rotten. That’s not world shaking – there are tragedies enough and a lesser table in a restaurant is at the worst a minor disappointment – but it made me feel bad about myself and who I am and how I am. It brought out what is unfortunately not the worst in me – the friend card – and it made me regret that. What I anticipated as a pleasant interlude became depressing. I really didn’t enjoy the hamburger. Of course it’s my own fault – I should have left, but in my defense I was hungry. It made me not want to eat out alone, and I won’t for quite a while now.
I am sure that some best policy indicates that numbers rule and individuals need only to be adequately accommodated. The policy is wrong. If only limited seating for groups remains in a restaurant is empty, of course the staff needs to organize diners by group size, but If a restaurant is empty and does not have a full set of reservations, there is no excuse for seating singles in Siberia. The restaurant industry sails under the “hospitality” flag, and the person greeting the guest is a “host” or “hostess”, all of which would suggest being hospitable. Discriminatory seating is anything but.
The logistics question is fair, but what prevents a highly profitable, large restaurant with a view from placing two tops which can be adapted to groups of two, four or more at view positions? My guess is that the policy or practice is at worst an oversight by the management, and, as I said, it’s the job of the hostess to screw up what owners intend well. It’s too bad under any circumstances. I was really looking forward to it, It was my only birthday present.