The sight of one of the most powerful men in the 1990s having dinner by himself in a restaurant permanently changed my attitude towards eating alone in public. I was working in Washington, D.C. at the time. One winter night, I met a visiting family member in the restaurant of the historic Willard Hotel, down the street from the White House, into which Bill Clinton had moved the previous year. At that time, I was a few years shy of 40, with as yet little experience eating in expensive restaurants. I was a little overawed by the elegant carpeting, white tablecloths reaching almost to the floor, plate silver cutlery, heavy drapes on the tall windows, and the Greek revival columns. I have no memory of the food. We sat at a table next to one of the large windows looking out on the hotel’s front sidewalk.
In the center of the dining room, a small round table set with one place setting and a water glass (but no wine glass) stood by itself. It was the table closest to where we sat but two or three steps away. Upholstered booths were to one side and two tables for four were on the other. The single table, spotlit from above, sat empty for the first half of our dinner. Then I noticed a man in a well-tailored dark blue suit and a lighter presidential-blue tie walking toward it. He wasn’t the only well-dressed man in the room, but he was the only one with a tan, which set him apart from everyone else in the room. I wondered whether he was wearing pancake makeup. Perhaps he had come straight from a TV studio. Real or fake, his tan identified him as a politician; the pale complexion of the other white men in the room suggested they were staffers.
It took me only a moment to realize the man was James Baker IV, the former secretary of state in George H. W. Bush’s administration. Catching my relative’s attention, I darted my eyes in Baker’s direction. I needn’t have been so discreet. Every diner in the room was looking towards the table. And that, I realized, was the point of the staging.
With all eyes in the dining room on him, Baker took his seat at the table set for one. His server unfolded the napkin, placed it on Baker’s lap, and then went away. And the secretary sat there. He did not look around. He did not look at anyone. One forearm, with his fist lightly closed, rested on the table. He looked at ease, with his pleasant face and posture so poised and self-assured that he seemed unnatural. No server brought him a menu or took his order. Nor did he appear to expect one or the other. When a waiter placed a cocktail before him, it was ordinary as a traffic light turning green, an elevator door opening, or a doorman opening the door of his limo, an ordinary action.
He sipped his cocktail slowly, still maintaining his gaze in neutral. The waiter took the glass away when it was empty. Within five minutes, his first course arrived. Over the course of forty-five minutes, James Baker ate an appetizer, main course, and dessert without uttering a word or making eye contact with anyone. The twenty or so diners in the room glanced occasionally at him throughout the meal.
His scoop of ice cream finished, Baker stood up and for the first time looked around at the other diners. He walked over to the booth closest to his table and greeted one of the two men there. He stood there for a few moments chatting to the two couples in the booth. Nearly everyone in the room must have worked in government, because he went from table to table greeting people he evidently knew. He did not stop at our table. The men and women he spoke to looked flattered to be publicly acknowledged by such a prominent man. His procession around the room pulled all eyes towards him. No one’s meal remained undisturbed. For fifteen minutes, Baker shook hands, spoke to diners, and then, with a little wave to all in the room, he exited.
In the 90s, the word ‘privilege’ wasn’t bandied about like it is today. Nevertheless, at the time, I understood that Baker’s performance — for that is indeed what that meal was — embodied the essence of privilege. I don’t believe the ease, poise, and seeming lack of self-consciousness he displayed was an act in the sense that he feigned the sense of self-completion he exuded. Rather, he was displaying the public signs of his power. The act of dining alone in public view was not much different from Louis XIV’s dining alone in front of his courtiers. Baker’s meal was a challenge to everyone in the room. “I can do this,” he seemed to be saying. “You can’t. And there’s a part of you that wants to.” We, the other diners in the room, were Baker’s involuntary audience. Half my attention was on the conversation with my relative. The other half could not look away from Baker’s dinner, so brazen did it seem.
From that point on, cognizant that I was likely to be single and living alone indefinitely, I decided that if he can eat alone in public and be at ease, then so can I. Only I intended to bring along a book. Narcissists must be very bored. And boring.
Since that night in D.C., I’ve observed other, less powerful people dining alone in restaurants. Once, eating with a friend at Delfina’s in San Francisco, a nice, trendy neighborhood trattoria in the Mission district, I noticed a young African American woman, very stylishly dressed, seated by herself at a small table within my sightline. She had brought with her nothing to read, but she didn’t seem to be bored or uncomfortable. Leaning back against the padded banquette, she looked around her while waiting for her food. No one disturbed her while she sat there. She did not try to engage her server in conversation. She ate her two courses, followed by a leisurely coffee. She took her time finishing up and leaving. I am fascinated by people, like her, whose hands are still and gracefully resting on a restaurant table, instead hovering around the face or folded across the chest. Where do they find such self-assurance? I sure didn’t have much at the time.
The lone diner in Delfina’s reminded me of my sighting of James Baker in the Willard Hotel a few years earlier. Baker’s dinner was a performance, meant to draw not just attention but admiration. This young woman’s dinner was not, or didn’t seem to be, because no one except me seemed to notice the little bubble of serenity she had enveloped herself in. I admired this young woman more, in fact, than I did the couple in their late fifties on their first date arranged through an online dating service, who were seated next to us. They spent as much time chatting with us strangers as they did with each other.
Eating alone in public is not a skill or a talent much less an art. Still, how one goes about it reveals something about the right we feel we have to occupy the world in which we live.