food & drink

A singular dilemma

When you look for restaurants in most of the world's cities that specialise in customers eating alone, Spain rarely features. Why? Because here the act of eating suggests a group activity, and one hardly ever sees anyone eating on their own.

The Japanese, in contrast, live cheek by jowl with millions of others, but it surprisingly has the largest number of restaurants specially catering for solo diners. The Netherlands also has a good supply of solo eating-places, ditto the US, where it is common to see a man or woman occupying a lonely table.

There is possibly a difference between eating alone at lunchtime and eating alone at dinner, and oddly enough, faced with a choice between eating alone in a hotel restaurant and eating in a bedroom, single diners prefer experiencing real life to watching television. A halfway house is eating at the bar, and providing the people on each side of you are friendly, a bonus conversation can be rewarding once you get used to that uncomfortable bar stool.

Once again, though, the Japanese have the answer: a large table with a big grill plate in the centre, on which everyone prepares their meal. They end up eating what they cooked in the company of others, so not a bad idea.

Actually one of the most enjoyable dining experiences I have ever had was many years ago in Haro, La Rioja. When the town's main bakery closed for the day, its wood-burning oven was used to roast lamb, and on the first floor there were two long tables with benches. As customers arrived they would sit with those already present, and apart from a few routine starters, it was the superlative lamb or nothing. The wine list was equally limited: Rioja de la Casa, Rioja Crianza de la Casa and Rioja Reserva de la Casa.