I love going out to eat, both from a culinary perspective and from a social perspective. I appreciate great food from a wide array of cuisines, from the exquisitely exotic to the comfortably mundane, and when asked what kind of food I like best, will generally reply “Anything prepared well.” (The same answer applies to my musical tastes). Socially, my favorite person to go out to eat with is, of course, my lovely wife Marcia, who’s been sitting across the table from me for the better part of 23 years, and who still interests me conversationally more than anybody else does. We also love going out to dinner with our daughter, Katelin, who brings a rich sociocultural and arts perspective and wry sense of humor to the table, and shares our love for great Southeast Asian cuisine, like that found at her favorite Albany restaurant, My Linh, where we always go when she’s home with us.
I also appreciate dinners with friends, both here at home (where I do the cooking) and out and about. And we always have uproarious good fun when we go visit my family in the Carolinas, and go out to fancy pants restaurants, trying to be nice, but still generally end up talking about our bathroom habits, skin conditions, and the unspeakable things our pets do to our carpets, while laughing and laughing and laughing until food flies out of someone’s nose, at which point we start laughing even harder, not with them, but at them. When you see us coming, it’s probably best that you leave.
But as much as I like the social aspects of dining out, I also deeply appreciate going out to eat alone, as I love to spread out a newspaper on a big four top table and eat and read, all by my lonesome. Except that I’m not lonesome, because I really enjoy my own company. It’s funny to me, though, that waitstaff and restaurant hosts seem to be trained to offend solo diners, as the question always offered me while I stand alone at the maitre’d podium is “[sniff of disdain] Just one today, hmm?” as the help looks over my shoulders to see if someone is emerging from the parking lot behind me. But, nope, it’s just sad, lonely old pathetic me. Just me. Just one.
I’m an early riser, and the other members of my household are decidedly not morning people, so the meal I eat out alone more than any other is breakfast. And 95% of time, that means the same thing: a grilled cheese sandwich on rye bread, with a side of link sausage at a diner. Now, you might think that would get boring after a while, but I’m here to tell you that within that very simple order, there are a virtually infinite combination of delightful tastes and textures, depending on variations in the bread, butter, grill temperature and timing, sausage composition and preparation. (There should be no variation in the cheese, I should note, because the only authorized cheese for a proper grilled cheese sandwich is Pasteurized American Cheese Food Product or, if you want to be uppity, Velveeta). Ideally, I want the bread to be recognizably rye: there should be caraway seeds, and it should not be square shaped, and the bread should have a rough texture to it, which holds the butter the sandwich is grilled in, without becoming soggy. The sausage should be plump and crispy, with a snap to the skin, and dense, with a breakfast-flavor toward the sage and maple end of the spectrum, not the more dinner-flavored fennel or pepper seasoned sausage.
There are, of course, an equal number of pitfalls that can befoul the beautiful elegance of this delightful solo repast. First and foremost, I hate pickles and cole slaw, and if you bring me a beautiful, crispy, golden grilled cheese sandwich and throw an oozing dill pickle on top of it, and then put a little plastic cup of runny slaw that leaks mysterious white liquid all over my plate, then you have committed the most egregious food service violation of them all: A Grease Group/Water Group Violation. Tragedy! Woe! Terror! I also don’t like it if the restaurant throws a handful of potato chips on my plate, since this is breakfast, not snack time. Even if the grilled cheese sandwich would normally come with chips at lunch, have some decency when I’m there at 6:30 in the morning and don’t tempt me with Ruffles. (One local restaurant, which shall remain nameless, offers a choice of macaroni salad or potato chips with a grilled cheese sandwich. I declined both, as the server kept insisting that it came with the meal, and I kept insisting that I didn’t want either, really. When my plate arrived, there was a big, leaky mound of macaroni salad leaning against my grilled cheese. The server had decided that that was what I was going to get, because it came with the sandwich! Foul! Bespoiled! Horrors!) The other thing I hate is when I walk into an empty restaurant with a newspaper in my hand, and the server attempts to put me at a tiny two top booth where it will be completely impossible to eat and read a newspaper at the same time. It’s like they’re punishing me for being a “Just One.” (And before you get on your high horse and lecture me, I will take such a table if the restaurant is crowded and they need the four tops).
So if you find yourself out early some weekend morning and see me with my newspaper all spread out all over the table, noshing a grilled cheese with sausage, don’t ooze pity my way, pondering what sad turn of events led me to be there by myself. I choose to be there. Grilled Cheese and Sausage for One. If the diner holds the pickle, the chips, and the attitude, I’ll also always make sure that my server gets a four top’s worth of tip to boot. I value good service highly. Forcing macaroni salad on me does not qualify.