If you’ve ever deigned to attempt a ‘group’ activity alone, you’ll be well acquainted with the look. Oh, you know the one, it’s burnt into your retinas: wide-eyed with an exaggerated smile, searching for something, anything, that’ll reveal a glimpse of what’s wrong with you. Are you lonely? Strange? A foot festishist? Emotionally unavailable? Troubled? Bored? Or worse… boring? The possibilities are endless and, unbeknownst to you, you’ve signed up to become a curiosity. It’s enough to scare anyone with a pulse into tying themselves to the nearest person forever. Or, God forbid, put you off the prospect of gobbling anything in public alone.
But what if we redefined dining out solo as something for the curious? An adventure for those who don’t want to adhere to the dull rhythm of WhatsApp chats, Doodle surveys and date nights; a solace for Londoners itching to know what beef is going on behind the bar and which off-menu side dishes the regulars are ordering on the sly. Here, in A Table For One, I’ll be truly, madly, greedily trying to do just that. Every so often I’ll be observing a different London institution as a solo diner. No freebies, no PR, just me and a large portion of gluttony devouring all there is to consume in this glorious, delicious city.
Wish me luck. And no, I don’t have a foot fetish.
NUMBER ONE: WILTONS
Hang on, where am I? There’s the hypnotic tinkle of a Martini being stirred, the room is crawling with soft crests of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen-worthy wallpaper, and a gentleman named Philippo just said, ‘At Wilton’s, nothing is impossible.’ Ah, so I’m not in Alice’s Wonderland but that 280-year-old seafood restaurant hidden along St James’, where yes, the world may be crumbling outside, but my new pal Phil just granted my request to have two Pembrokeshire oysters instead of the on-menu minimum of six. At this cosy table on the edge of a restaurant where the native lobster cocktail costs almost as much as my phone bill, all, it seems, is positively splendid.
That was until said oysters arrived ceremoniously on their silver platter. Obviously I overdid it with the sauce mignonette (you know, those very vinegary, pickled shallots) and inelegantly choked in front of the music-free dining room for what felt like a small dog’s lifetime. But on the plus side, while my eyes stung with shame and involuntary tears, I realised something: you know you’re in a really fancy place when absolutely every person around you makes a pointed effort not to acknowledge your trauma for fear of embarrassing you, or letting you embarrass them, any further. Now that’s manners.
Once the small grocer lodged in my throat had closed for business, the second slippery, umami Pembrokeshire rock, its accompanying slither of bouncy, pre-buttered Irish soda bread (chic), and a sip of mineral white Portuguese Douro make for a breezy opener. The shoulders of the woman sitting on the table next to me begin to relax. An elegant businesswoman in her 40s, she has a quiet air of don’t-f***-with-me-or-I’ll-burn-your-life-down about her. Judging by her gentle, friendly chit-chat with Philippo, she’s a regular. And, in a place where she could be indulging in a twice-baked Colston Bassett stilton soufflé, she’s tucking in to the ultimate power dinner: a restrained plate of salmon, an unidentified green vegetable and buttered baby potatoes.
I, on the other hand, have decided I won’t be needing heating over the winter and order the lobster cocktail. Complete with unsheathed claw, it’s draped with marie rose sauce at the table and, I’m almost sorry to say, was worth sacrificing friendship with my flatmates for. Made up of about 90 per cent perfectly tender lobster, the rest — a cold crunch of dewy lettuce, silken avocado and decadent, zingy sauce — was the pincer. I mean clincher.
While I try to get to grips with the fish knife and delve into a plate of buttery plaice à la meunière, left, with a side of expertly blanched French beans, I keep tabs on a lone man in Edna Mode-style glasses, a smart elderly couple so at home they may have been here the whole 280 years, and a large, round table of business people patting each other on the back. This is not the type of place I’d have thought would be prime for solo diners, yet, here we are outnumbering the other tables. Just us, our thoughts and enough silverware to wipe off the ES team’s student loans. But perhaps that’s the brilliant thing? Unlike being perched at a buzzy bar with countless distractions, here, like the boss-ass-bitch to my right, one can appreciate the silence, the food and gentle chit chat with the team in peace. Sometimes that, along with a mountain of lobster, is the absolute luxury. As it should be, for £143.69