Dining alone is scarier than intensive psychotherapy all your worst fears are forced to the surface. Am I conspicuous? Are people staring? Am I hogging more than my fair share of space? Does my waiter resent me? Do I look like a loser? What should I do with my hands? And most metaphysical of all, in this yawning absence, this silent hour, do I really know who I am?
Women particularly, in our post-feminist age, still rarely go out to eat alone. Even when traveling for business, we mostly order room service, subsisting on tepid burgers and soft-boiled eggs. As for me, I've dined on my own at very posh restaurants precisely twice in my life, and both times, the experience was surreal and dreamlike. And ultimately wonderful. At 19, in San Francisco, I once got gussied up and took myself out for an expensive, leisurely meal at a well-known Polynesian-themed restaurant. The odd thing is, I remember every bite I ate (crab Rangoon, pepper steak), exactly what I was wearing (a cream-colored silk skirt), and even what chair I sat in (the great, balloon-shaped butterfly chair in the corner). The waiters looked after me, bemused and solicitous, not sure if I was a whore, a crazy heiress, or just another lost soul.
There's a strange sense of "last meal"-ness to the experience of dining alone, an intensity and focus, as if at the end of it, you're going to quietly fold your napkin and go throw yourself off the nearest bridge. But in that void of white tablecloth and empty chairs, you have no choice but to pay attention to your food (which may be why the Guide Michelin surveyors famously work solo). You note the feel of table linen, the sheen of flatware. You study the four furled pink rosebuds in the glass vase; absorb the murmur of waiters and wine stewards as they pad around behind you; notice the precise, measured way your wine glass is refilled. The light from high windows turns your pinot noir the color of a liquid blush. Eating alone slows time. It almost, but not quite, conquers it.
Sitting with me, myself, and I on a recent evening at the Restaurant at the Four Seasons Resort in Palm Beach feeling a little bit smug and not at all lonesome I wondered why I don't do this more often. For one thing, your final bill is half what it would be if you were eating with somebody else. You can hie over to the snootiest places with the best chefs, get waited on hand and foot, and nibble the most delectable morsels. When you dine alone, that glass of good champagne is within reach, and nobody is going to judge you for ordering it. You can say "yes" to the half ounce of osetra (at the Restaurant, it's $75); you can OK the seven-course tasting menu with wine pairings. You consult with no one but your own conscience and maybe the wine steward. My friends, it is bliss. I'm strongly urging you to give it a whirl.
The Restaurant at the Four Seasons is a fine place to take your first solo flight. Chef Hubert des Marais is one of our great celebrity chefs; at the tender age of 31, a little over a decade ago, he was fingered by Food & Wine as one of 10 Best New Chefs in America. During his long stint at the Four Seasons, des Marais has put in a splendid garden at the resort, where he plucks fresh herbs and tropical fruits for his "Southeastern Regional" menu; he's been known to purchase fruit too from local residents' backyards. Des Marais frequently goes sea fishing with resort guests and cooks up their haul, and he seemingly has more southeasterly regional ideas than he can shake a stick at. The seven-course tasting menu, for instance, changes daily. The night I was there, my waiter said he'd worked at the Restaurant for ten years and couldn't remember seeing any dish repeated more than once or twice.
The à la carte menu is laden with tropical touches: avocado and sunchoke, banana blossoms, basil pesto sorbet, alligator pears, hearts of palm. You'll find guava and passion fruit reductions, boniato fries, and Old South standards like red-eye gravy polished to a new gloss with heirloom tomatoes. The best representation of Chef Hubert's whimsy, though, is in his tasting menus. You can choose three-, five- or seven-course tastings ($65, $85, $105, respectively), with or without wine pairings ($85, $115, $150 for a three-ounce pour with each course). Go with the pairings if you dare (my waiter, probably worried about my blood alcohol level and the ever-industrious South Palm Beach cops, advised me to drive home along AIA and advised me, please, not to go over 35 miles per hour).