After last night’s debacle, I found myself curious about how a solo female diner might be received elsewhere. It was time, I thought, to experiment.
Half a block from my hotel are a pair of sibling restaurants, Max Fish and Max Amore. A mere quarter-mile from the now-infamous Bertucci’s, they sit comfortably at the other end of many scales, including quality (higher), price (ditto), and service (ditto ditto).
I hadn’t been to either of the Maxes since taking up residence in the hotel, for a variety of reasons that included scheduling and finances. Today, after a late breakfast en suite, followed by some online Christmas ordering for Mom (who doesn’t use a computer and ends up paying much more than if she had access to online deals), a phone chat with Mom, another with the carpenter who will be working in my attic tomorrow, and similar bits, I found myself thinking that a late lunch at Max Fish would be just the thing. A few quick online searches revealed that the hardware store would stay open until 6:00, so I could treat myself to a lobster roll and still have time to use my Black Friday coupon at Katz’s to procure various types of floor protectors to put on chair legs so as to guard my about-to-be-refinished hardwood floors.
As it turned out, my planning was imperfect. Seems that while Max Fish serves lunch until 4:00 on weekdays, brunch/lunch ends at 3:00 on Sundays. The young man at the host desk assured me that even though technically dinner service didn’t begin until 4:00—forty-five minutes away—I could obtain a meal. He offered me a choice of seats in the bar or the dining room; I elected a corner high-top table in the bar.
I was surprised at the number of patrons at the bar. Sunday afternoon never really struck me as a time to go out for a glass of wine and a plate of oysters or fried fish, but there were probably a couple dozen people who clearly felt otherwise. My server, a young bespectacled woman, brought me a menu and inquired what I would like to drink. I opted for bottled water; very soon, she brought a large carafe of water and a small plate bearing lemon and lime wedges, and she poured the first glass for me.
Turns out that the dinner menu didn’t include lobster rolls. I was going to ask if it could be done anyway when I saw another offering:
Lobster Pan Roast (1 1/4 lb)
Butternut squash risotto, black peppercorn-vanilla-bourbon pan sauce
My server advised me that the lobster was steamed and removed from the shell, served atop the butternut squash risotto. She added, “It’s heaven.” Between lobster and butternut, I was sold. I ordered a side dish of haricots verts, also known as green beans, and I settled in with my book until the food arrived.
A few minutes later, a curious thing happened. My entrée was brought by an older gentleman in a white shirt and tie—definitely not a member of the wait staff. He asked if he could do anything else. I mentioned the haricots verts (which I called “green beans” because after many years of French class, I can only pronounce them the French way, i.e., without the initial h, and that felt far too pretentious). He advised me that he would have them brought out immediately and that he “would take care of them” since they had not been brought with the meal. The beans arrived shortly thereafter, and I later discovered he had indeed issued a credit for that item.
The server was correct: the lobster and risotto was indeed heavenly. The vanilla provided a richness I’d never have thought to seek, but it was perfect, an idyllic moment.
My idyll was short-lived. Soon after I began to eat, a party began to arrive. They assembled the other high-top tables into a chain, pulling chairs around. They seemed a friendly enough lot. They were utterly unconcerned about whether anyone could hear their conversations, and so I learned a good deal about one of the party’s members, a man who teaches at a local community college and has an on-again/off-again relationship with a particular woman and who spent a month treating with a psychologist.
Eventually, the woman in charge of the party came over to where I was. She introduced herself and told me that this was her son’s twenty-fourth birthday. I waved to the son and wished him a happy birthday, but it turned out this was the younger brother. She talked of how they always came here for happy hour on the sons’ birthdays, ever since they’d begun coming after their sports games since practically every place else in town was closed at ten o’clock. (The chalkboard over the bar showed the hours for “late happy hour” as well as regular happy hour.) She allowed that usually, they sat at the raw bar so the boys (then under twenty-one) would not be near the alcohol, but someone was sitting there when they came in this time, so here they were. Eventually, she worked her way around to what I assume was her true motive: when I was done, would I mind if they took my table to add to their party? Not at all, I assured her. I wouldn’t be much longer anyway, since I still had errands to do. She seemed quite pleased with this reassurance, returning to her guests. I thought I heard the college teacher say something about inviting me to join them, but since I really did need to move on, it was just as well that no invitation was tendered.
The bar was getting busier and busier. A number of older couples trickled in, settling in at the community table established for those who arrive without a dining companion but who might wish to have company without sitting at the bar. My server was busier, shuttling now between the bar and the dining room, but eventually, she brought my check. I allowed the birthday party to take the table (though not my chair), and when the server returned, I handed her the signed check and my water glass, waved to the birthday party, and headed out, and I couldn’t help laughing at how the whole thing had turned out.
Which is what makes the two events so different: I left Bertucci’s feeling irritated and slighted, and I left Max’s feeling well-cared for and entertained by the other patrons. It helped that the Max staff showed positive concern for my dining experience, including the server’s offering of a comment about the entrée I was considering and the manager’s immediate (and unrequested) response to finding that not everything about the service had been perfect. But more important, I think, was that at Max, I was treated as a valued customer. My total bill at Bertucci’s (had I been satisfied and paid for everything I ordered) probably wouldn’t have been terribly different from the bill at Max, but the experiences couldn’t be more dissimilar.
Even the experience with the birthday party wasn’t bothersome. My guess is that the birthday boy’s mother would have made exactly the same request if I’d been with someone. As far as I could tell, she didn’t care how many people were at my table; what she cared about was whether she would be able to use it for her guests.
I’m certain that more experimentation with solo dining out would lead to more varied results, but as I sit here this evening, I can’t help feeling pleased that I didn’t allow last night’s experience to keep me from trying again. Many years ago, when I was taking horseback riding lessons, I learned that it is not a mere cliché that if you fall off the horse, you get right back on: when I fell off, the teacher inquired whether I was all right, and as soon as I said I was, I was right back in the saddle. Apparently, this strategy has application in other areas as well.
Of course, the other theory is that the more upscale the restaurant, the better the service. Perhaps I should restrict my solo dining experiences to high-end restaurants. Hmmm. The insurance company probably won’t cover a week of fine dining as a reasonable living expense while I’m still out of the house. Crowdfunding my dining experiences doesn’t seem like quite the thing. I wonder whether I can deduct these dinners as research expenses since I’m writing about them. Maybe this is what leads people to become food writers: they want to eat out, and they don’t want to pay for it.
Clearly, there’s more here than meets the eye. Stay tuned for the Adventures of the Solo Diner!