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Only the Brave (and the Lonely) Dine Alone
by Lionel Fisher

In a 1984 movie titled The Lonely Guy, Steve Martin and his melancholy buddy, Charles Grodin, are miserable to the point of despair over not having found True Love. These significant other-less characters advise and console each other, go shopping for ferns together ("Nothing with buds," cautions Grodin. "You don't want to watch a plant's life blossom while yours withers.") and generally try to cope with life without a main squeeze.

There's a hilarious scene in the movie where Martin nervously enters a restaurant and nervously informs the maitre d' he will (gasp!) be dining alone. Instant quiet grips the room crowded with couples.

All eyes lock on the solitary figure as a spotlight ushers him to a table in the center of the dining room, where he plaintively orders a cocktail. "Oh, and captain," he pleads, "would everyone please go back to talking."

Far less amusing is that so many of us still feel like Martin�s lonely guy whenever we patronize a fine restaurant alone, as if the maitre 'd might suddenly announce in a loud voice to the gaping congregation, "And here we have Martha Albright, eating by herself again!"

Curiously, this unease seems to attach itself to solitary diners in gourmet establishments but seldom in fast-food joints.

As if it�s perfectly OK to eat alone in a beanery when we�re in a hurry. But not in a leisurely, fancy setting.

Isn't that odd? Why is that, do you suppose?

Why, too, do we feel all right propping up the sports page of the daily paper on the ketchup bottle while devouring a Big Mac and fries? But not against a pricey wine bottle while waiting for the fancy appetizer at a local Le Maison?

And so lonely guys and gals at French eateries spread and respread the napkins on their laps, rearrange the silverware in front of them for the fourteenth time, glance once again at the clock on the far wall, wishing the waiter hadn�t removed the place setting opposite them so they could crane their necks occasionally at the far door as if in anticipation of a late-arriving date.

"It takes a confident man to dine alone," notes writer Ron Beathard in an "In My Opinion� piece in Newsweek magazine. "The less-assured pretend they are on the road traveling from important client to important CEO, and read an important business journal as if they just didn't have the time to eat and socialize simultaneously.

"They can order water and service for two, glance impatiently at their watches every two minutes, then sigh to the waiter, 'I guess she got tied up in court.'"

Or they can pretend to be restaurant critics, as Steve Martin did in The Lonely Guy, scribbling furiously in a notebook.

Or, best of all, we can simply enjoy the pleasure of our own company wherever we happen to find it.

Even if it�s dining by ourselves in a crowd of couples on Thanksgiving night in a four-star restaurant downtown. While laughing out loud at the stigma we seem to attach to doing anything alone anywhere but in our own bathrooms.

Asked why he preferred his own company while eating, Alfred Hitchcock curtly replied, �Conversation is the enemy of good wine and food."

So don�t let the stares of wonderment faze you. It�s just that people aren�t used to solitary diners. Even our heroes have always had sidekicks to break bread with: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Batman and Robin, the Green Hornet and Kato, Crusoe and Friday, Butch and Sundance, Thelma and Louise.

Which is why we marvel at the rare sight of Lone Rangers riding -- or dining -- without their Tontos.

Next time, then, you start to squirm under the quizical gaze of couples smugly conversing and chewing around you, remember Golda Meir�s withering remark to a boring dinner partner: �Don�t be humble. You�re not that great.� Remind yourself that you�re breaking bread with the most scintillating conversationist of all. Guess who? Then order anything you want off the dessert cart. After all, when the bill comes you�ll be the only person paying for one meal.

Lionel Fisher is the author of Celebrating Time Alone: Stories of Splendid Solitude (Beyond Words Publishing, 2001). Reach him at beachauthor@hotmail.com to share your thoughts on magnificent aloneness.