Whenever I tell people that my boyfriend is a chef, the first thing they’ll say is, “Oh, you must eat so well at home.” Or, “You’re so lucky! He must cook for you all the time.”
Before the pandemic, however, this could not have been further from the truth. Back then, I never ended a long day of work with a bowl of Tim’s creamy Parmesan risotto, a bite of his dad’s famous meatloaf with a side of Tim’s parsley root puree, or a taste of perfectly seared ribeye steaks served with crème fraiche-topped rösti.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Tim’s cooking (and his company), and I cherish the time I’ve been able to spend with him during this pandemic. However, what I really miss is dining alone, by myself. Like I used to before the world changed.
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Back then, when my work day ended at 7, his was right at the peak of a busy dinner service, expediting orders and sometimes working the line. We had a long-distance relationship by New York standards — I lived in Queens, he lived in Brooklyn — and our schedules rarely aligned. So, if I wanted to see Tim, I’d have to wait for him … in Manhattan.
And for me, that meant solo dinners, exploring the city’s restaurants and bars by myself. Though I’ll admit there were times when this felt like such a slog, especially when Tim didn’t get off of work until closer to 1 a.m., now that I can’t do this anymore, I find myself missing it terribly.
Hotel lobby bars and restaurants were a favorite haunt of mine. I loved going to different ones throughout the city because, in a weird way, they felt like home. For most of my career, I was a journalist who covered the business of travel and hotels. I loved walking into a hotel lobby, and feeling like I was still traveling — that I had somewhere to go.
When I traveled more often, I grew comfortable dining alone. It never mattered to me that I was solo; what mattered more was making sure I’d have a great meal, with taste memories and stories I’d remember fondly, well after the trip ended. Like when I let a fellow diner at Spoken English in D.C. borrow my trusty Tide pen after he splattered fermented durian curry on his crisp white shirt. Or when I sang the praises of the brisket at B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue in Atlanta so convincingly to my Lyft driver, Derrell, that he promptly turned around and drove back to the restaurant for his own lunch as soon as he dropped me off.
In hotels, I felt at ease. Hotel bartenders were always astutely aware of bargoers who wanted to engage in conversation with them or not, something I genuinely appreciated. I didn’t mind when the occasional tourist struck up a conversation, especially if they needed help navigating the city. I didn’t even mind the muzak. I loved observing the other diners, and wondering to myself what their stories were, what had brought them there, too, that night. I relished being alone, but still together with others.
Each night waiting in Manhattan, I tried to pace myself. The trick was to order just enough food and drink to keep me satiated, while saving room for a nightcap and a second dinner with Tim in the early morning hours when he got off work. Over time, I knew which hotel lobbies had the most accessible electrical outlets for charging my phone, like the Moxy hotels in Chelsea and FiDi. I loved ordering a glass of wine and an order of cheese-filled suppli at the Evelyn Hotel’s Leonelli. At Ferris (now Debajo), inside the Made Hotel, I couldn’t help but indulge in an Ibérico katsu sando and the charred broccolini with a cocktail.
Sometimes, though, I just wanted comfort food, and for me that meant only one neighborhood: Chinatown. Its mom-and-pop restaurants were ideal for late nights spent alone, savoring a bowl of wonton mein or a steamer of xiaolongbao in silence at Noodle Village, slurping a massive serving of pho from Pho Vietnam on Chrystie (sadly now closed), or devouring a platter of charsiu and rice with a big bowl of congee from Great NY Noodletown with a crowd of New Yorkers from every microcosm imaginable. Somehow, the people who worked in these places always knew how to bring me back to life.
Most nights, I’d inevitably wind up at a bar not far from where Tim worked. Most recently, that spot was Hall, a tiny 20-seat bar in Chelsea that resembled a church with its handsome, intricately carved oak panels and forest green marble bar. Going there did actually feel like a ritual at one point: Eli, the bartender, had the funniest stories, and poured some of the best drinks around. The fries with crispy Brussels sprouts and truffle salt always hit the spot. I loved the spontaneous conversations that came up with other bargoers. And, of course, I loved the moment each night when Tim would walk through the doors, hang up his coat, and Eli would immediately start firing a Negroni for him.
I still find myself waiting alone for Tim most nights of the week, although now it’s at our home in Queens, curled up with a book on the couch or binge-watching Netflix. There’s no more chatter to be heard from other diners, unless you count my neighbor’s cat, Sushi, who sometimes purrs right outside my door. There’s no more dinner rush. No more people watching from the bar. There are no more last calls.
I miss dining alone like I used to before. I miss all of these places that invited me to linger, that made me feel welcome at all hours of the day (or night). I miss having bowls of congee by myself, and reminiscing about my Popo’s version of it. I miss seeing familiar faces behind the bar. I miss hearing an unexpected song from the restaurant playlist that’ll remind me of old friends. I miss toasting with a stranger every now and then.
These days, I think often about what Tim, a restaurant lifer, used to tell me about solo diners: how restaurant and bar staff, no matter where you are, will always treat solo diners with a little more care — not so much as to make you feel more alone, obviously, but just to let you know that they’re there for you. That they’ve got your back. That even though you’re dining alone, you’re not really alone.
Nowadays, with everything that restaurant workers have dealt with this past year because of this pandemic, it’s time we showed them the same level of hospitality. When it’s safe again, I can’t wait to have a solo meal out again. Until then, though, I’m going to do all I can for the people behind the places that kept me well fed, who kept me going, all those late nights before.