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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Party of one
Dining alone makes most people feel self-conscious. But savoring a meal on your own can be one of life's great pleasures.
By Laura Reiley, Times Food Critic
Published October 3, 2007
[Joe Walles | Times]
Cafe Reggio, New York City's Greenwich Village
I am going to describe one of my life's deep and redemptive moments of humiliation. As so many embarrassing stories begin, I liked a boy - a smart, somewhat fancy-pants boy who was a DJ on my college radio station. To woo him, I bought two tickets to La Traviata.
He wasn't biting. Fine, I thought. I'll go by myself. I got dressed up, wept as Violetta fell to the floor, then I took myself to dinner at the town's swankiest restaurant.
And I loved it: the eating at my own pace slow and the delicious voyeurism opportunities. (It's hard to eavesdrop effectively on neighboring tables if your companion is blathering.) It was theater with a front row seat, pure and simple.
My love of dining alone persists to this day.
But at a recent food-writing conference in Minneapolis, I learned that even among food writers I'm a minority. These professional eaters will do nearly anything to avoid a solo meal. There seemed to be consensus that a good meal is heightened through shared appreciation, so that a solitary meal is the equivalent of the proverbial tree falling in the forest.
"I've always had an aversion to eating alone. While I can give all kinds of excuses - such as food is meant to be enjoyed with others, what it really boils down to is that when I dine alone I feel uncomfortable, as if people are looking at me and wondering why I don't have any friends," Michael Bauer, restaurant critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, writes on his blog.
But think of all the things we routinely do alone - go to the gym, travel, shop, drive. Why is it that dining alone makes us feel as if we have a big LOSER sign on our foreheads?
Worse for women?
Eating has forever been a communal thing. We invite people over for dinner. We gather around the table as family. We go on dinner dates.
"Sociality is at the center of eating. It has always been that way: sharing the yield of the hunt," says Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied people's thoughts and feelings about food.
And, he adds, feeling bad about dining alone may be especially profound in women.
"American women are very self-conscious about eating, and many do not want to be seen eating."
Bella DePaulo, author of Singled Out and visiting professor of social psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, agrees that there might be gender difference in the phenomenon.
"There's all this pressure on women to couple - the bridal magazines are Today's Bride, not Today's Groom - and there are all those shows with women clamoring for the attentions of the bachelor. Women are subject to more of a trouncing, with a larger set of societal pressures to be with someone."
The numbers show that more and more of us are alone. The population of Americans living solo has grown from 17 percent in 1970 to 27 percent in 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More people are traveling alone, too, with single female travelers one of the fastest-growing segments of the travel industry.
When it comes to dining sans partner, though, it would seem the trepidation is all in our heads. We are our own worst critics, or at least that's what a recent study by DePaulo shows.
To see what others thought of solo diners, she showed shoppers at a mall photographs of people dining alone, then in couples, then in threesomes and foursomes.
"It was very interesting," says DePaulo. "We got perceptions that were not at all negative. Some people guessed the (solo diner's) friends just weren't available that evening, or that they were a business traveler or that they just wanted some time alone."
Her findings also reveal that single diners' feelings of conspicuousness are unfounded: "People often think others are paying more attention to them than they actually are."
If fellow diners aren't judging us, might restaurants be to blame for our collective aversion to dining alone? A table for one leaves a seat empty, a seat that might be filled with a second paying customer. Poor treatment of singles might be economically driven - simply, single diners mean lower check totals.
DePaulo taught a course on singles and society in which one of the assignments was for the students to go out to eat by themselves.
"Their reports were interesting. One woman was never seated because the restaurant thought she was waiting for someone. Or the restaurants tried to hide them somewhere in the back, or to serve them really fast because the restaurant thought they were eager to get out of there."
Restaurant business in this country is booming. It's estimated that 9 percent of restaurant meals are eaten by solo diners. That's roughly $48-billion out of our collective $537-billion restaurant bill for 2007, according to National Restaurant Association figures.
In addition to that robust contribution to the economy, single diners generally eat more quickly, turning the table faster than a larger party. Also, according to the National Restaurant Association, singles generally tip better, closer to 20 percent than a larger party, which still tips closer to 15 percent.
All the more reason for servers and restaurateurs to treat single diners with respect.
That's what they do at Roy's in Tampa, where staff is taught to watch their language.
"We never use the verbiage 'dining alone tonight?' or any negative language," says Robert Snow, Roy's managing partner.
I appreciate the effort, as do plenty of solo diners, I'm sure. With or without impeccably trained staff, I still don't mind tucking into a sumptuous dinner with me and me alone.
I give thanks to that college DJ, who never did go out with me. His empty place at the table allowed me to stumble upon one of my life's deep pleasures.
What restaurants can do to accommodate single diners:
- Be sensitive about language. It's never a table for "just one."
- Allow single diners their dignity. Don't seat them by the kitchen or tucked near restroom doors. Seat them facing the dining room so there's something to see. If they're reading a book, seat them where there's good light.
- Chat if they seem to want it, but be perceptive enough to know if, like Garbo, they "vant to be alone." "Part of being a professional server is effectively reading the table. Via body language, short answers or lack of eye contact, it's easy to tell when someone wants to be left alone," says Robert Snow, managing partner of Roy's in Tampa.
What single diners can do to put their best foot forward:
- Eat during off-peak hours so busy restaurants don't feel they're "losing" business. Early in the week, at 6 p.m. or after 9 p.m. even bustling restaurants are eager to have more business.
- Sitting at the bar, or at the counter if there's an exhibition kitchen, means no seats are wasted. A seat at the counter or bar also provides a little added entertainment and opportunities for socializing if you're in the mood.
- Calling ahead for a reservation, demonstrating interest in the food and wine, and tipping well can cut down on discriminatory behavior.
- Bring a prop (a book, a notepad, even a deck of cards) if you have to, but be prepared to entertain yourself through observation and sensation. And remember, you're not without someone else but really with yourself.