Sole food

Being a single gal has its benefits; it’s usually when I go on holiday that I feel the disadvantages. The real soul destroyers are the practicalities that only affect you when you stay away from home. One is that a single room in a guest house or hotel costs almost as much as a double or twin room. The other is eating out.

Eating is a social activity (although you would wonder sometimes, in this country). A ‘companion’ is quite literally (etymologically) someone with whom one breaks bread. Even at home, eating alone can be miserable – no wonder so many people rely on the distraction of television.

It is hard not to feel lonely, dining out alone. Cafés are fine; one can happily idle away an hour with a newspaper. But restaurants demand attention. Now, I’m delighted to give a well-prepared dish all the attention it deserves, especially if it isn’t coming cheap. But rather than being an ‘occasion’, the restaurant experience risks being reduced to a succession of dishes. No matter how delicious they are, something is still missing.

Without a companion, there is nothing to do between the arrival of the courses but wait, and meditate on the preceding one. People-watching is a pleasant diversion, if one is in a good spot, provided it can be done discreetly. I sometimes read a book or keep a journal, if the service is slow and the lighting good, but it doesn’t feel right, especially in the evenings, and I do it surreptitiously. The loneliness is reinforced by the happy chatter of the people at the tables all around.

Trepidation would therefore best describe my feelings as I entered Le J’Go, a Paris restaurant offering the regional cuisine of the French south west, with its bustling downstairs bar full with a lively Friday night crowd. I had seen (but not visited) the restaurant’s sister operation in Toulouse, and had heard of the Paris branch by recommendation, and because one of its co-owners is former France XV captain, and thinking woman’s rugby crumpet, Fabien Galthié. When I saw such a busy bar, I nearly turned away discouraged, until I saw the sign saying that the restaurant was upstairs.

I cannot praise the staff highly enough. It is a real pleasure to eat out alone and not mind. The waiting staff were prompt without being hurried – or hurrying – and kept an unobtrusive eye on me all evening to make sure I was happy. It could just have been the gallantry of young Frenchmen towards une charmante anglaise toute seule but it was appreciated none the less, especially as they were clearly having a busy night in the restaurant too.

It wasn’t just friendly staff – their solicitousness was evidence of a deeper philosophy. This is a restaurant which invites you to engage with it. They describe the spirit of their restaurants as ‘weaving strong links between those who produce with passion, those who cook with respect and those who eat with pleasure’. The website has short articles about its suppliers and even a selection of regional recipes. The bill came with a questionnaire (maybe for a prize draw, I forget) asking about customers’ interests: gastronomie and wine, of course, and rugby (a sport concentrated in south-west France), but also outdoor pursuits, travel and even bull-fighting. A marketing tool, perhaps, but out of the usual.

By way of example, consider their wine list. The single diner often finds that the choice of wine available by the glass or small carafe is limited. Commercially understandable, but frustrating. This restaurant only listed wines by the bottle, so I enquired whether I could just have a glass. ‘Certainly – of which wine?’, asked the waiter. I had no idea, so asked for whatever he recommended to go with my starter. He said he’d ask his colleague and disappeared without further ado. My starter arrived with a small glass of red that suited it perfectly. A glass of something different for the main course? ‘I’ll see what we have’. It could have been a licence to rip me off, but my faith was rewarded when I saw the bill – they had not simply chosen the most (or least) expensive wine.

Because I didn’t know what wines they had served me, I had to ask. For all I knew, they might have been bottle-ends from other tables, or left-overs from the lunch sitting, but they were well chosen. The fact of having to ask (and helped by the fact that I liked the wines enough to want to ask) gave me a bit more social interaction than I usually get when eating alone in a busy restaurant.

On top of this, the layout of the restaurant upstairs (one walks past the kitchen to get to the dining tables) meant that, from where they had seated me – not tucked into a corner – I could stay entertained watching the interactions of cooks and waiters and the comings and goings of customers. Little details like that make a pleasure out of a potential ordeal.

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~ by jobes on April 9, 2008.

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