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What’s the best thing about dining on your own? The people-watching




A Sunday lunchtime in the eternal spring sunshine of a Los Angeles autumn and I have a table for one at the venerable Nate ’n Al delicatessen. It’s a reminder that the film industry was founded by Ashkenazi Jews from the east coast who craved a taste of home: of pastrami on rye and matzo ball soup, food for colder weather and darker skies but to hell with that. If this is what these film people want to to eat, this is what they’ll have. After all, they write the script.

And here it is 70 years on, doing the same thing it has always done. I am at Nate ’n Al for the smoked salmon and the “everything” bagel, but for something else too: the people-watching. The pleasures of eating alone are obvious. You get to eat what you want, how you want. It is one of adulthood’s great indulgences. But who admits to its other profound pleasure, the licence it gives you to spy on people?

We reveal so very much of ourselves at the table. It is a vital bodily function we perform in public. Witness the man who carefully lifts the crisped skin off his roast chicken, pushing it to the side of his plate with disgust, or the woman who, faced by spare ribs, sets to work with a knife and fork. We immediately feel we know something about both of them, none of it attractive.

And even if we can’t be sure of their stories, we can quietly invent them. In the booth next to mine at Nate ’n Al today is a young father with his small daughter filling in her colouring book. So he’s a divorced dad, and it’s his Sunday to take her out. No, hang on. Because here comes his wife with their younger child. But she attends only to the kids and the couple barely exchange glances. He pulls the wedding ring off the appropriate finger and puts it back on again, and repeatedly, like it’s something he’s done many times. So no, not a divorced dad’s Sunday. At least, not quite yet.

On the other side of the aisle, there’s a party of three in their late 60s. A couple on one side of the table, a single man on the other. Once upon a time surely they were four? But she is no longer here, and they make a point to look after him as she would have wanted. So on a Sunday they are still at Nate ’n Al because certain traditions need observing.

Just in front of me, a Jewish mamma is issuing instructions to the long suffering waitress as if the Meg Ryan diner scenes in When Harry Met Sally were less social satire than a guide for living. She wants the onions on one plate, and make sure they don’t burn the bagel, because haven’t you heard that burnt toast gives you cancer and God forgive the oncologists of Beverly Hills should get more business?

And perhaps way over on the other side, out of my view, is a woman eating alone. Perhaps she looks up from her plate and sees a big man with too much hair and a beard. She watches the way he stares around the room and thinks “Poor sap, deep in his midlife crisis” and returns to her lunch.

Is she right? Has she nailed it? That’s not for me to say. For the duration of lunch the solo diner gets to own these narratives. Because without them, eating alone would be nowhere near as fun.

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