I've gone though a lot of periods of dining alone--some bad, most of them good. I'm not even sure the bad ones can be labeled "dining," really. What happens is more akin to "absent grazing," and the meal is often comprised of something mindlessly simple--PB&J or a slab of cheese and some bread or leftover mashed potatoes and gravy (cold, of course)--and cheap red wine or a glass of water. I generally always use a plate and silverware, but I will backslide into the world of paper towels. I'll crouch at the corner of the table, sit at my workbench/desk or in Mother's ancient rocker--it really doesn't matter where the deed is done, because it is done quickly. There is no lingering over this food; its purpose is as fuel.
Awful, I know, but that's depression for you. Even so, there are two upsides I've been able to determine. The first is that the PB&J, the cheese and the bread, the mashed potatoes and gravy, usually consist of quality ingredients--I mean, even depression has some built-in governors. And the second is that this kind of eating in solitude happens less and less, thanks to friends, personal growth, some excellent therapy and the good folks at Lilly (the learned opinions of Tom Cruise, notwithstanding).
The good times are, I'm happy to say, legion. One of the things my fave restaurants have in common is the comfort level I have when dining alone. At Poca Cosa and Bonsai, Janos and Tavolino, Le Bistro, Kingfisher and Fiorito's, Café Pacific, El Charro, Fleming's, Vivace and Tania's--among others--the hospitality is as much a part of the menu as the food. Some of the very best times have been those in which it seems I have said almost nothing and happily left it in the hands of chef and server.
Similarly, some of the worst dining-out experiences have been those in which my party of one has resulted in being basically ignored, slighted, disdained, forgotten and seated at the end of the world. These kinds of things have never happened in Tucson, of course, and I don't make it a habit to eat and tell. But I will never forget a night in Phoenix many years ago when I was up to observe Evan Mecham's impeachment proceedings. It was a glorious time, of course, but I needed to stay several days, and one night fell on Valentine's Day. There was little room at any inn that night for a singular diner, and the reservations people acted astounded at my temerity when I called to request a place. (The level of my ignorance can best be judged by the fact that I kept thinking it weird but quaint that so many Phoenix eateries would be full of people celebrating Arizona Statehood Day.) In the end, I called Ed Buck, one of the leaders of the Recall Mecham movement, and we had burgers at a Denny's or some such.
The best dining alone is done at home, and the best way to do it is exactly as if you were entertaining favored guests and loved ones. Whether the menu is complex or simple, use the best ingredients you can use, from what you will be eating to what you will be drinking. Set the table; have some flowers and candles; choose music. It's a great opportunity to experiment with new recipes or comfort yourself with familiar favorites. There's a nice flexibility to cooking for one. You can have as many helpings as you want without feeling publicly piggish and, as David said, you make extra and freeze what's left for another time. Take as long as you want between courses. Cleaning up as you go, which is rude with guests but quite acceptable when alone, means there's not a discouraging pile at the end of the meal or, more dismally, in the morning. Obviously, the conversation will be as scintillating, thoughtful or quiet as you wish it to be, and the chance of an embarrassing faux pas will be minimal, at most. I find the dogs are better-behaved at these affairs, and Marley often leaps up on the chair next to me to watch the progress of the meal. If I have Cyndi Lauper on in the background, Sisk has been known to break into puppysong, which makes for a sweet, live accompaniment to the meal.
M.F.K. Fisher, whose writings too few people know, had the best thoughts on dining alone. In her 1949 book, An Alphabet for Gourmets, she noted that "... gastronomical perfection can be reached in these combinations: one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hill side; two people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good restaurant; six people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good home." That may well constitute its own Golden Mean. My favorite of all her incisive observations is this: "Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly ..."
Who could say it better?
In the Out FileTo Frank: Thanks for the loan of the silent guest. He's the perfect dinner companion and I'm going to miss him!
To the R-G Clan: Food is food, and family is family, and happiness is having a combination of the two. Thank you.
To Steve A.: How could I have forgot those wines you mentioned? You're right. But how could you have forgotten to share them??