I went to a restaurant a few months ago. This is not the most unusual thing you’ll ever hear me say. This particular time I was on holiday in Tel Aviv. I’d arrived in Israel with lists from Yotam Ottolenghi, Sami Tamimi and Itamar Srulovich of their favourite places to eat. If you don’t know them, they’re all ex-pat Israeli chefs working in London. The first two started Ottolenghi and the last owns and cooks at Honey and Co with his wife, who is some sort of magic genius baker, Sarit Packer. They’re all geniuses, if you ask me, at least in the kitchen. Maybe elsewhere, too. They all worked together a few years ago and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say they changed the way we eat and for the better. Their lists included smart places like Hotel Montefiori and very unsmart places like falafel stands in the bus station. I think they all recommended Manta Ray. (It has a very annoying website). It’s also my sister-in-law Mandy’s favourite restaurant in the world, so that was settled, I was going to Manta Ray.
The restaurant is a large, airy room by the beach. You can leave it and step straight onto the sand. There is a view of Jaffa, which is a kilometre or so away, through the window that runs the length of one wall. When I arrived the place was a third empty. I was by myself and they showed me to a table at the very edge of the room. It wasn’t even a table – it was a high shelf. I sat on a bar stool. I asked if I could sit outside – it was a hot day and the terrace was half empty. No, they said, this is the only place we have. That area of the restaurant, the place where no one wants to sit – it’s often between the toilets and the kitchen – is where they make you sit sometimes when you eat by yourself. That table is in an area the restaurant industry calls Siberia. Well, I stayed at Manta Ray. I ate well, and had a nice time. The waitress was charming and friendly. Still, I was five metres from the nearest diner. I felt like I was being punished for eating a meal by myself. And that I was paying for. When I left the room was still not full, the terrace still half empty. I see why restaurants do it but it’s insulting. I pay the same for my food as each person at a table of four. I concede I will (usually) eat and (probably) drink less than that group. I get it, I get that I’m less valuable to that restaurant. But I was eating a meal that they otherwise wouldn’t have sold. I don’t see why I was treated differently from the other customers. They don’t offer a discount and I don’t think of it as hospitality. I will never return to Manta Ray, either by myself or in a group of eighteen heavy drinkers celebrating their Nobel prizes.
I often eat by myself in restaurants. I used to take a book and concentrate on that but these days I most love to take everything in, enjoy the theatre of the restaurant. I love to sit outside and people watch. On holiday, I almost always go away by myself, I read less than I do at home. I spend more time mesmerised by the action in front of me than I am by any work of fiction. I’ll strike up conversations with people at the next table whether they’re by themselves or not. Couples often seem relieved to have someone else to talk to.
In Nybrogatan 38, a place I love in Stockholm, the manager sat me at a long table. There were groups and couples, but next to me were the two other people eating alone that night. We were friends before we’d finished our starters. I was once in La Tupiña, a beautiful restaurant in the beautiful city of Bordeaux. My life isn’t nearly as jet-setty as it sounds here. All these events happened over the last few years. I wish I could go away more. Anyway, in La Tupiña, the most convivial restaurant in the world, I was by myself. The handsome young man at the next table was photographing whatever was on the end of his beautiful girlfriend’s fork. I laughed. ‘It’s to make my friends jealous,’ he explained. A group of three men, halfway through their fifth bottle of wine, saw my dessert arrive. They sent me a glass of delicious sweet wine to drink with it. We toasted each other across the room. This is how I love restaurants to be. I think restauranteurs would like their businesses to be more sociable. Maybe it’s the diners’ fault: Public places for private business.
The place I least like to sit is in a corner, crowded by the coat rack on one side, the swinging kitchen doors on the other. There’ll be a draught. The waiter won’t be able to see me. I’ll feel like I’m paying, and paying well, to be ignored. I don’t feel like a valued customer I feel like a cash dispenser. They used to say that single customers would tip badly, if at all. But these days service is automatically added to the bill. I have twice asked for it to be removed, which was done without hesitation or complaint, but it takes a strong nerve to do that. I don’t think I’ll let them make me sit in Siberia any more. I’ll find somewhere else to eat.
The place I most like to sit when I eat by myself is at the bar on a high stool that swivels so I can turn and look at the comings and goings of the room. I can chat to the barman if I want to and he has the time to. My favourite place to sit in the world is at the counter in Morito, at the cooking end. I go there often enough that I’m friends with the chefs, the barman and the waiters. We pass the time with chat, with gossip, with food talk. The chefs are generous enough to share their kitchen secrets with me and I eat the results of those secrets. They leave me alone if I want them to, to check on twitter or read or whatever it is I do. But I prefer talking to them. They’ll sometimes pass me something they’re trying out or a dish that a diner has mis-ordered. It’s all the best bits of eating with other people and all the best bits of eating alone.