Comptoir Turenne is on the ground floor of a 19th-century building with battered shutters in the Haut Marais, on the less fashionable end of rue de Turenne. At the more fashionable end, Glow on the Go! serves concoctions like the Lolita, with organic cherries and “superfoods adaptogens,” and Baby Beluga sells bikinis and matching sunglasses for Capri-bound toddlers.
Comptoir Turenne has no such panache. Its sidewalk views are mainly of a real estate agency and a men’s suit shop. It is not on “must-eat” lists. Visitors are not burdened by the ghosts of Hemingway and Sartre to have an indelible experience. All of this makes Turenne a laid-back spot for breakfast pour un. You can sit under its cheerful red awnings and fancy yourself Parisian.
Portions, however, appear to be measured with Americans in mind. A croque-madame arrived at the table looking as if it had been flown in from the Cheesecake Factory. A sunny-side-up egg was as big as a pancake. Beneath it, thick, crusty bread was covered in toasted cheese. Beside it, French fries were piled in a little deep-fryer basket. There was barely room on the table for my café crème and the speculoos tucked between the cup and saucer.
I eyed the speculoos. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells a story in “Peace Is Every Step” about being a child and taking half an hour, sometimes 45 minutes, to finish a cookie that his mother bought him. “I would take a small bite and look up at the sky,” he said. “Then I would touch the dog with my feet and take another small bite. I just enjoyed being there, with the sky, the earth, the bamboo thickets, the cat, the dog, the flowers.”
I can polish off a speculoos in less time than it takes to say “speculoos.” Nonetheless, Nhat Hanh’s story resonates in an age when it’s not unusual for a meal to be eaten with one hand while the other is posting a photo of it to Instagram. As I eased back in my rattan chair, men in suits stopped for coffee and cigarettes. Children were being walked to school. For the solo diner, no view is better than the one from the sidewalk, even the one from Comptoir Turenne. When you’re not sitting across from someone, you’re sitting across from the world.
I’ve eaten by myself in France more than anywhere else, with the exception of my own country where, more than half the time when we’re eating, we’re eating alone. That’s more often than in any previous generation. Pressed for time at work or school, Americans frequently eat by themselves at breakfast and when snacking, according to the NPD Group, a market research company. More than half of lunch meals are solitary. And more than 30 percent of Americans have dinner alone because they’re single or on a different schedule than their partners.
The trend is being seen in other countries, too. In South Korea, for instance, it’s largely driven by long work hours, according to Euromonitor International. Many may not be dining alone by choice, yet because more people are doing it, it’s changing perceptions. “Dining alone has not only become socially acceptable in South Korea,” Euromonitor International reported, “it is almost fashionable.”
Be that as it may, all too often the meals we have alone are rushed and forgotten, as if they didn’t matter. In the United States, dining alone has led to what the Hartman Group, a food and beverage consultancy, has called the “snackification of meals.”
Certainly, we all have times when we have to eat and run, but what about the rest of the time? Why should a meal on our own be uninspired or scarfed down as if consumed on the shoulder of an interstate highway? Why shouldn’t the saying “la vie est trop courte pour boire du mauvais vin” — life is too short to drink bad wine — apply, even when we sip alone?
France has its share of fast-food chains. Still, the French have historically spent more time eating than the people of other nations — more than two hours a day, according to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. As the writer Alice B. Toklas wrote, the French bring to the table “the same appreciation, respect, intelligence and lively interest that they have for the other arts, for painting, for literature and for the theatre.”
Eating alone, however, in Paris and beyond, has soured plenty of appetites. Nathaniel Hawthorne cherished his solitude (“It is so sweet to be alone,” he wrote to his wife in 1844), but not at mealtime. “I am ashamed to eat alone,” he noted in his diary. “It becomes the mere gratification of animal appetite … these solitary meals are the dismallest part of my present experience.”
Solo dining even prompted the Pope to look for company. Vatican tradition had called for the pontiff to eat by himself. But in 1959, during Pope John XXIII’s first year as the spiritual ruler, the Daily Boston Globe published the headline: “He Shatters Tradition, Refuses to Dine Alone.” “I tried it for one week, and I was not comfortable,” the pontiff explained. “Then I searched through sacred scripture for something saying I had to eat alone. I found nothing, so I gave it up, and it’s much better now.”
Through the years, the only thing portrayed as worse than eating alone has been eating alone in public. To borrow a term from the sociologist Erving Goffman, you’re a “single,” not a “with.”
When Steve Martin enters a bustling restaurant in the 1984 film “The Lonely Guy” and tells the captain, “I’m alone,” he replies, “Alone?” — and the restaurant comes to a standstill. After a prolonged silence the captain says, “Follow me, sir,” and a cold spotlight appears on Mr. Martin, pursuing him to a table amid the gawking crowd.
The supposed horror of solo dining was fresh as ever in the 2015 film “The Lobster.” In a world where humans who don’t find mates are turned into animals, single people are made to watch propaganda skits, including one called “Man eats alone.” The man gets something caught in his throat, chokes and dies.
Anxiety about how others perceive us is apparently so outsized that a group of researchers devised a name for it, inspired by the spotlight scene in “The Lonely Guy.” They call it the Spotlight Effect. “People overestimate the extent to which their actions and appearance are noted by others,” Thomas D. Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, and colleagues wrote in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
They reached that conclusion after several studies involving appearance and behavior. For instance, in one study, subjects wore a T-shirt showing someone with whom they were happy to be associated, such as Bob Marley or the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In a different study, participants wore a shirt they felt had a potentially embarrassing image on it: a close-up of Barry Manilow’s head. Setting aside the question of whether Mr. Manilow was unjustly categorized, researchers found that the participants in both studies allowed their own focus on the shirt to distort their predictions of how much attention it would garner.
Does this principle apply to dining solo?
Bella DePaulo, an academic affiliate with the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, had answers. To evaluate perceptions of solo diners, she and fellow researchers once had four 20-somethings and four 40-somethings photographed at a restaurant. The pictures were then Photoshopped to create situations such as dining alone, or with a person of the other sex, or with a person of the same sex. (Photoshop was used to ensure the diners would not be judged differently because of shifting expressions or posture).
The researchers then took the photos to a shopping mall and asked hundreds of adults there to look at a particular person and tell them why they thought that person was out to dinner. If the photo featured someone dining solo, the shoppers were asked why they thought the person was having dinner alone. Some respondents said things like “He is lonely” and “She looks depressed.” Others had positive or wistful things to say, such as “enjoying a few good peaceful moments,” and “he is secure.”
Ms. DePaulo, a leading author about single life, didn’t publish the findings in a scientific journal. Why? Because what people thought of the solo diners proved to be no different than what they thought of the diners who had company. “We never in a million years thought that we would not find any differences,” she said.
“It’s not that solo diners are never dissed,” she explained. “But when people look at couples in restaurants, they’re also saying equally dismissive things.”
So why dismiss yourself?
A sidewalk brasserie like Comptoir Turenne is an easy place to begin cultivating the pleasures of a meal for one. You don’t have to be escorted to a table. Pick one you like and take a seat. Cafe tables are little; you never feel as if someone is missing. Look around: Others are also alone, breathing in the scent of coffee, feeling the spring breeze across their cheeks, savoring the morning.
To eat out alone is to partake of a city. And if you happen to be a woman, you may also be exercising a hard-won right. “It was impossible for a woman to go about alone,” Virginia Woolf wrote of Jane Austen in “A Room of One’s Own.” “She never travelled … or had luncheon in a shop by herself.”
As late as 1970, a New York magazine article began: “In this most liberal of cities, a woman has no legally guaranteed right to enter a restaurant.” When Mother Courage opened two years later in Manhattan, it provided a place for solo female diners to tuck in. “A woman coming to eat here alone knows she won’t feel like a freak and won’t get hassled by men,” Dolores Alexander, who founded the restaurant with her partner, Jill Ward, told People magazine in 1975. Even today, some women are still reporting the problems experienced by Ms. Alexander’s generation.
Yet despite unwanted attention and decades of articles depicting eating alone as some frightful activity, women have long cherished a solitary meal. M.F.K. Fisher could wax poetic about its pleasures. Fellow food writer Marion Cunningham, a champion of family mealtime, wrote in her popular “Supper Book” that “sometimes eating supper alone feels private, quiet, and blessedly liberating.” In 2017, The New York Times asked the humorist Fran Lebowitz which three writers she would invite to a literary dinner party. “None,” she replied. “My idea of a great literary dinner party is Fran, eating alone, reading a book.”
In the United States reservations for parties of one grew by more than 60 percent in 2015 over the previous two years, according to OpenTable, the online restaurant reservations company. Solo dining has increased across Europe and in parts of Asia, too.
At Eenmaal, a temporary restaurant opened by Marina van Goor in Amsterdam in 2013, each table sat only one. Guests were encouraged to disconnect; to read, sketch, write, or simply enjoy the food. “At Eenmaal,” Ms. van Goor said in a talk for the lecture series CreativeMornings Amsterdam, “you are your own company.” Her words echoed those uttered centuries ago by the composer Franz Joseph Haydn, who once told a waiter to serve him a dinner that some contended could have fed five. The waiter, according to the Boston Daily Globe in 1889, said, “But, sir, the company is not come.”
Haydn replied: “Pooh! de gompany! I am de gompany!”
Paris is among the most appealing places to be your own company. It was there that The New Yorker food writer A.J. Liebling said he learned the art of eating. “I was often alone, but seldom lonely,” he wrote in “Between Meals,” his memoir of his days in Paris, “I enjoyed the newspapers and books that were my usual companions at the table, the exchanges with waiters.”
Under the red awnings of Comptoir Turenne, the men on either side of me lit after-breakfast cigarettes. Tourists wandered by in the direction of the Picasso Museum, art galleries and Merci, where shoppers line up in an industrial warehouse to buy the necessities of modern life, like pink computer glasses and soap made from tomato leaves.
To sit outside a Paris cafe at breakfast is to observe the city as it wipes the sleep from its eyes: the soft clink of a cup and saucer, the turning of newspaper pages, the passer-by with a cigarette who asks for a light — and me, at my little round table, nibbling a speculoos, sipping my café crème.
This article is adapted from “Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude,” by Stephanie Rosenbloom, a reporter for the Travel section. It will be published by Viking on June 5.
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