Eating alone, you are discovering, is as much an experience beyond food as is the celebration of friends in the centre of the restaurant or the intimacy of lovers at a corner table. Waiters and waitresses accord you treatment inconsistent with that given the very much more troublesome and noisy family group, for example. Even in an empty restaurant you are steered to an out-of-the-way table, or one with inconveniences, such as a view into the kitchen, or continually being brushed by the waiting staff as they make tracks round the table. Either you are too melancholy a sight to place in full view of prospective customers sizing up the menu in the window, or you are hidden away for being so insulting to the French way of life as to eat alone.
A restaurant like this has its atmosphere to protect – the restaurateur’s nightmare is of all tables occupied by a solo diner, the silence broken only by the sound of solitary munching and the turning of a page of a newspaper or book. And one of them a feared critic, disposed to mention the effect the mood had on the food, or how food finds its natural customer, as a dog characterises its master.
Under the waiter’s scrutiny, the poise of their pens, their forbidding or tired or beautiful eyes, your French goes to pieces, where if you were relaxed, it might gain you a smile. But relaxation only comes with the carafe. You should learn to drink before you eat.
There are two styles of waiting. One sort ignores you, serving you only when you have lost hope, and never then gives you a chance during your meal to ask for more bread or wine. The other is too attentive, always a watchful eye, pouncing on your plate as soon as your fork rests on it for the last time, delivering main course dessert coffee and bill in a stream that deposits you very quickly back on the pavement, or would do so if you did not fight back by despatching your food lingeringly, with a wine-fuelled imperviousness.
You subdivide the attentive waiting style into two. There are the impersonal waiters, who are inclined to a professional efficiency rather like the expert behind a bar who sets off a Guinness, shoots up a measure of spirit or two from the row of optics, decants a coke and pumps out a lager all before the Guinness has its head. Then there are the sort who will not be happy till you are gone, having apparently taken a personal dislike to you. Either way, the smile of welcome and departure is missing.
It comes to mind that Louise used to wait and hated it. Always one ungrateful slob, one groping hand or suggestive set of yellow lupine teeth. After work, there would be the smell of fried fat on her clothes and in her hair. If you had not known each other, and she had been your waitress, and you had been her lonely customer, how would she have waited upon you? She would have been of the impassive attentive kind, a hint of disdain when any of the other diners flattered themselves with their importance. From you she would have kept her distance, concentrating her thoughts on her life away from the restaurant, while you would not have been able to take your surreptitious eyes away from her, which of course she would notice, so that hers would have become a study of avoidance.