Koreans hate eating alone. Food is a social activity, which is as it should be, but what it means is that it’s very rare to see a woman eating alone, even in a fast-food outlet. There’s a Korean saying, better not to eat at all than to eat alone.
Obviously, I don’t agree. But eating alone in a fine restaurant, in a restaurant with white tablecloths and murmuring couples and celebrating parties, is still hard. Last November, I ended up in Lima, Peru, alone for the night before my flight back to New York. My hostal ended up being across the street from the famed “Astrid y Gaston,” a restaurant I had been reading about on Chowhound.com. It’s celebrated for using traditional Peruvian ingredients in inventive ways, and I was dying to try it. But I had never eaten alone at a good restaurant before. Was this the right first time? The fact that my hostal was so close was clearly a sign from God, if I believed in God.
I tried calling to make a reservation, got a busy signal, and promptly gave up. But then I ended up at a bookstore looking at Peruvian cookbooks, and found one by a Gaston. When I asked the nice young clerk if it was the same Gaston of “Astrid y Gaston,” he started flipping through the pictures, sighing and smiling: “Que delicioso!” Another sign! I invoked M.F.K. Fisher, the patron saint of all women eating alone, gritted my teeth, and marched towards the restaurant. It wasn’t open for lunch, and it looked so closed up, I almost gave up again, but the security guard looked friendly and I blathered at him in broken Spanish until he let me into their office. The two young women there and I had such a hard time understanding each other, but there was a lot of smiling and finally a dawning of understanding on my part that yes, there were no tables available, but they could make me a solo reservation in the lounge.
So now I had a reservation, other people who would expect me to show up, but as I got dressed later that day, I still considered just eating at the cafe down the street. I had just gotten off of a 4-day trek on the Inca Trail, had no nice clothes, and the only shoes I had other than my mud-covered boots were my mud-covered Converse sneakers. The moment I walked into the restaurant, I wanted to hide. It was beautifully lit, modern, one of the chicest restaurants in Peru if not South America. I was led to a low table in the lounge, where I tried to tuck my feet into themselves. Just being in the lounge, tucked away from the open dining room, I felt sort of unwanted and hidden away. The waiter quickly brought out some snacks–olives, a spongy, feta-like cheese, and delicious garlic and oil dip–and I was so grateful to have something to do. I recognized a couple from the trail, and they recognized me, but they didn’t take pity on me and ask me to join them. I kept eating.
And then, Hans, the angel head bartender, noticed me. “What are you doing, sitting there alone? Come sit at the bar!” I almost tripped over myself rushing the two feet to the bar. He told me about the different pisco cocktails, helped me pick my menu, and basically made me feel incredibly welcome. I chose a potito sour, a yeasty almost beer-like cocktail, then a tiradito to start, like ceviche with with long strips of fish rather than cubes.
Then a blue corn ravioli filled with parmesan scallops in a light, slightly astringent broth.
And of course, dessert, rice pudding fried into little donuts with an intensely flavored passionfruit sorbet. Hans really approved of this choice.
The whole meal was concluded with the most beautiful petit fours: tiny alfajores, which are cookies sandwiched with dulce de leche (caramel), and candied aguaymanto, which are tiny husked tomato-like fruits.
The other bartenders didn’t speak English as well as Hans, but they smiled at me constantly, happy to see me so happy. Hans would talk a bit between drinks he was mixing, offer me tastes of different cocktails, and explain what I was eating. What I loved about this meal was that all of them seemed to respect my deep desire to have good food, even if alone. They were friendly because they were happy for me, but they didn’t see eating alone as something to be embarrassed about, to cover up with a lot of chatter. I was still eating alone, and amazingly, I was happy doing so.