Last night I did something I can’t recall having done before in my near sixty years – I ate out alone in a restaurant. I don’t know what that says about me, particularly as I dine out as often – and probably more – than I can afford. Perhaps I am such sparkling company that I am always fending off a queue of admirers willing to share, and be seen to be sharing, a meal in public with me? Yes, of course ………… not. It’s more a case of my being too self-conscious to be seen unaccompanied.
Until last night.
Having passed a dozen restaurants in Covent Garden, all full, catering for the demands of theatregoers, I spied a spare table at Pizza Express, opposite Charing Cross railway station, and, as boldly as I could in the circumstances, went where I had not gone before, and entered.
I felt some trepidation about the experience, expecting everyone to stare at me and either poke fun because I had nobody to share my meal with or, perhaps worse still, cast pitying glances in my direction. This may be pathetic and irrational, not least in these days when an increasing number of people live alone, but it was, nonetheless, real.
I was met with a beaming smile by Yamina, a delightful and attentive waitress whom, I would hazard, was of middle eastern extraction, and escorted to my table. She removed the “spare” set of cutlery, thereby indicating to my fellow diners that I was truly on my own, and not just waiting for my “date”.
She promptly took my drink order of a large glass of Pinot Grigio. I declined the offer of water, not least because the prospect of having two glasses, and perhaps a bottle too, on the small table before me (and this was before any food had arrived), might prove too much of a temptation for me to spill the contents and expose me still further as a sad hick.
On returning with my drink – which comprised a wine glass AND a carafe (anxiety level spirals) – I ordered dough balls “Pizza Express”, followed by “Padana Leggera”, a thin crust pizza topped with goats cheese, spinach, caramelised red onion and garlic oil, with a veritable forest of rocket engulfing it. Yamina declared that I had chosen the “best” pizza on the menu, with which judgement, despite the absence of at least four varieties of cheeses bubbling in it, I concurred.
The food was good if not outstanding, but then, the last time I looked, Pizza Express was still awaiting its first Michelin star. It is, however, reliable, tasty and relatively inexpensive. And, having been one of the first pizza chains in the UK, opening its first branch near the British Museum, over 40 years ago, it has maintained its position in the market in the intervening years in the face of growing competition.
Last night, the dough balls were a little dry, although the garlic butter helped to alleviate that issue. Goats cheese and caramelised red onion are a delicious combination, though the profusion of rocket atop it just took the edge off the heat a little more than I would have liked.
The service throughout was excellent. Aside from the ever-smiling Yamina, both the young man who delivered my main course and the woman – whom I presumed to be the maître dit who collected my empty plate – were equally charming and attentive.
Now, when you have somebody opposite you at the dinner table, you are obliged to engage them in witty, intelligent conversation or, failing that, check your e mails and Facebook accounts together on your mobile phones. When you are alone, however, your thoughts tend naturally to wander over the minutiae of your life. For me, the experience of being in a restaurant, on my own, monopolised my thinking.
One fantasy I harboured that might account for the superb service I received was that the staff might have mistaken me for a food critic. Fanciful idea I know, but my alternating between taking a bite of pizza and scribbling in my notebook, must have appeared odd. Nothing like drawing attention to yourself when you’re trying to be invisible. But, in a way, I was - this article is as much a modest restaurant review as it is an exploration of my psyche.
Or perhaps their amiability was borne out of pity for my plight of solitude.
(There I go again – it’s no big deal, really. Thousands of people do it every day, and without making such a fuss. Get over yourself).
And besides I wasn’t really alone. I had the company of a six by four foot mirror disconcertingly close to my left cheek, reflecting back my profile. Thankfully, it displayed my better side, though that is not saying much. Inevitably, I cast the occasional glance in it, but for no other reason than to snoop on my fellow diners without staring directly at them. Oddly, they appeared to have no interest in me, my scribbling or my hangups (nothing worse than being spoken about………).
After forty five minutes I paid the bill, leaving Yamina a handsome tip, and strode out into a balmy, bustling Strand where the rush hour with its constant stream of taxis, buses and pedestrians remained in full swing.
(There, that wasn’t so bad was it? Well, OK, but I think I’ll take my wife next time).