After editing Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant, a new collection of writers’ reminiscences of dining alone, Jenni Ferrari-Adler submitted herself to a self-conscious New Yorker’s nightmare: a sometimes-nerve-racking, potentially humiliating, and even, once or twice, kind-of-fun week of tables for one in some of the city’s most bustling restaurants. Then she took notes.
P*ONG, 150 W. 10th St.
I figured I’d start with what could be the worst: a romantic dessert destination. The hostess-waitress offered a bar seat, but I insisted on a table—amid all the other tables filled with couples—then gave myself over to the two-hour, ten-course tasting menu. I compulsively ordered the wine pairing so the waitress wouldn’t think she was losing money on me. An hour in, I tuned out the surrounding chatter and was surprised to find I didn’t want anyone with me. It was meditative to be silent in the sleek white room as the parade of strange treats moved incrementally from savory to sweet.
Carmine’s, 2450 Broadway
Both the hostess and the waitress asked, with some concern, “Have you been here before?” The salad was enough for twelve; the side of eggplant parmigiana enough for four. Around me, groups were passing platters, singing “Happy Birthday,” being raucous. Suddenly I realized a nearby table of eight was talking about me, giddily gesticulating at the enormous portions and holding up one finger. I smiled, to let them know I was in on the joke. I was ridiculous but possibly endearing, like a Seinfeld character.
The Spotted Pig, 314 W. 11th St.
I didn’t have a reservation, so when the maître d’ said I’d be seated in a few minutes, I thought I’d misheard. My cozy first-floor table was perfect for people-watching. Next to me, a man made a big production over his girlfriend’s birthday candles; the women on the other side swore they’d hit the gym tomorrow to work off the gnudi. No one acknowledged me, but I still felt like part of the friendly action. Still, I wanted to talk, so I asked more questions than usual about the menu. By the time the entrée arrived, I liked who I seemed to be: someone who lived down the street and treated herself well.
The Waverly Inn, 16 Bank St.
“You’re both here?” the hostess asked. “Just me,” I said. She looked at me again and said, “Awww, cute!” The most status-conscious restaurant in New York seated me in the main dining room, nowhere near Siberia, and I had excellent sight lines for the intense backslapping camaraderie. I was, to borrow Nora Ephron’s phrase, a wallflower at the orgy, my senses heightened by the starry reputation. I noticed dresses, jewelry, hairstyles. But without a conversation to pretend to be involved in, staring felt embarrassingly crass. My courses came fast, but no faster than those of the couple seated next to me. I struck up a conversation, and we traded stories about how we got our reservations (friend of a friend of a friend). They thought that was Sofia Coppola in the garden room (it wasn’t). When I left, I saw passersby looking at me with more than the usual passing sidewalk glance; I felt a little associative star power.
Blue Smoke, 116 E. 27th St.
Here, I got sent to Siberia; the maître d’ led me upstairs to the balcony. Frankly, it was a relief. The other diners were so far away I didn’t feel bad making a few phone calls and getting unashamedly messy with my Kansas-style ribs.
La Grenouille, 3 E. 52nd St.
After a warm greeting, I was led to my very own sprawling red banquette, catty-corner to an elegant couple clinking Champagne flutes. “For our 50th,” I heard them tell the waiter. I sat up straight, put my napkin in my lap, and held the wineglass properly by the stem, but no one looked at me. As at the Spotted Pig, my table was well situated for restaurant theater, but here I was bored. I contemplated tripping a waiter to stir things up. But ending the week with a chocolate soufflé wasn’t so bad.