Food & Drink: A well-lit table for one, please, waiter

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Solitude, ah. That which keeps marriages from breaking up and makes mayhem impossible; which allows reflection and which sometimes is a grievous burden. Unfortunately, the solitary seem to be a burden to restaurants, too.

All good things in hotels and restaurants come in twos or multiples thereof. The pages of any glossy magazine show fantastic bargains to tropical hotels, all palm fronds and turquoise sea - below which, in much smaller type, you will see the clause, 'based on double occupancy'.

Ditto restaurants. Number One Son, without wife and kids for three weeks, went to Brittany. On the first night, he walked into an empty restaurant, his soul full of good will. Surveying the scene in his customary magisterial way, he sat down at a window and picked up the menu. At which point the waitress came over and all but seized it from his hand.

'Monsieur,' she said sternly, 'there you cannot yourself sit.' He responded, somewhat curtly, 'Why the hell not?' There followed a minor altercation, both refusing to budge: he maintaining that as a customer in an empty restaurant he was entitled to sit where it pleased him, in the window embrasure if he so chose; she, equally adamant, implying he was that thing most dreaded of the French, gachis; that is, waste.

He walked out.

My dinner companions have chimed in with a long series of similar horror stories when I tell this story: of being forced into a tiny space by the men's loo, of being refused service altogether, of being told there was no room when there were obviously empty tables, of being served with scorn or even impudence - like a customer in America asking for a smoking table.

Travel being part of my metier, I have come across this problem on many occasions and, having a long memory (of the days when restaurateurs were a beckoning breed, happy to see a customer, and judging him not by his possible profitability but by the satisfaction they hoped to give him), my reaction is much the same as my son's.

There was a time, at least on the Continent, when the solitary diner was the rule rather than the exception. After all, what man (or such is my view) would eat out if he could eat in? Indeed, if memory serves, most restaurants in Paris or Rome or other cities had a set of pigeon- holes behind Madame Cashier's ample bosom and shoulders, where the steady solitary eater's napkin was kept; as was that part of the previous meal's wine which he had not consumed.

So what should the solitary diner do? I have devised a series of stratagems for this which are nearly foolproof. Tactic number one is basically a pre-empt: like a bid in bridge when you tell your partner you do not want any nonsense. My own favourite here is both true and functional. As I always read when I eat alone, I say, 'A table with decent light, please.' Since many contemporary restaurants are designed to spread gloom, this causes the maitre d' a moment's hesitation, and in that instant your battle is won.

Tactic number two is the basic grovel, at which I have become quite adept, along the lines of: 'As someone who knows this business, I realise how horrible it is to have a waiter remove the second setting at the table just for me, but do you think that you could possibly . . ?' Taking pity on the poor customer is a speciality of waiters and comes, in their vast repertory of gestures and feelings, second only to self-pity.

A third tactic is flattery: 'I have heard so much about your restaurant and your fabulous (insert as appropriate from what you have chosen to eat from the menu outside).' This is invariably successful.

The real question is why any of this should be at all necessary. A crowded restaurant is one thing and the proprietor is quite within his rights, if he has only a table for six left, not to clear it just for you. He is also within his rights to keep his better tables for his preferred customers and, by definition, a solitary diner is not a preferred customer. Still, I think the waitress in Brittany overstepped the mark, as I think any form of surliness from someone in the business of catering, is churlish, unpleasant and unnecessary.

The solitary diner is one less out of choice than out of necessity; he or she may well be as capable of enjoyment, and in need of a meal, as any party of guzzling youths. Indeed, most of us who eat alone are of settled disposition and advanced years. As customers we offer advantages. We do not create the kind of noise that makes most restaurants such appalling places to eat in. We tend to make a meal last and eat more than one course. We are grateful if we eat decently and are served with care. We are inclined to reward performance. We treat waiters as human beings. We are observant. We have time on our hands and are not in rude haste.

I appeal to restaurateurs to treat us no differently from other customers. If we enjoy our food, next time we may bring six or eight people. Indeed, one such restaurant I first ate in alone just before a Chelsea football match became my home and my family's for 25 years.