Most people don't like eating alone at fancy restaurants. What they mean by alone is not having company at their table. How about being the only one in the whole restaurant? That's what happened to me the other day.
I got a same-day reservation at the Sooke Harbour House on Whiffen Spit Beach on
Vancouver Island on a Saturday. The place is famed for using local ingredients, including many
from its front yard. Its back yard is the ocean. The only time available was
5:30 pm. That was okay because I was still on East Coast time. So it was going to feel like 8:30 pm anyway.
When I left Victoria that morning, I hadn’t planned on sitting down for the four-course,
fixed-price meal. It wasn’t cheap. But several things sold me on the place. One
was the idea of the fresh ingredients from local farms that the restaurant uses. Another was its lack of pretension. And it's such a pretty place, tucked into a neighborhood
near a little park, with funky yard art, beautiful flowers and its very own totem pole.
When I stopped in to ask about reservations and the dress code, the woman at the front desk smiled and told
me anything goes. Dinner is about the food, not the clothes. Bikers in Spandex
also sit down for a fine meal here, she said. I was sold.
When I returned at 5:30, ready to be seated, no one was
in the big dining room. That was weird. The hostess sat me at a spectacular
table at the window, overlooking the Pacific. It was lovely. But I felt self-conscious and wished I'd been more fashionably late. I yearned for
others to show up.
Funny, I didn’t feel the same way at lunch that day. I was only the second "party" to be seated at Point-no-Point restaurant, a half hour up the road. There, too, I got the perfect table, in a little room by myself. I was at a corner table, facing the sea from the top of a steep hill. On the table was a pair of binoculars. Every table had a pair. Lucky diners can spot eagles, orcas or other wildlife.
Being alone there didn’t feel strange at all. It was relaxing. Maybe because the room was
very small. Or because it was “just” lunch. Why is lunch so much easier than
dinner for lone diners? It’s not fraught with meaning in the same way solo
dining at dinner is. But why?
I enjoyed the solitude. And
fantastic chicken, crispy and lemony. And apple-squash soup. By the time I left, the place was
packed. I was glad I didn't have to contend with the rush.
I spent the afternoon hiking,
collecting rocks on the beach and visiting a meadery. That is, a place
that makes mead. When I got back to Sooke for dinner, I didn't see a
single other diner. I asked the hostess, “Is anyone
here.” She replied, “I’m here!”
Nice as she was, I still felt better when other diners showed up, about 15 minutes later. It only took one or two filled tables to change the atmosphere.
What is the lesson? Not sure. Maybe, it’s that the early
bird gets the prime restaurant real estate? (You can’t seat a single diner near
the kitchen when every table is empty, can you?) But that it's uncomfortable when there's more wait staff than patrons.
I ended up spending two hours at
the Sooke Harbour House, mesmerized
by waves crashing on rocks in the distance, listening to nearby
conversations, looking at pictures in my camera and reading a New
Yorker magazine. And, enjoying the presentation of the food.
The smoked tuna ravioli appetizer was to die for. The salad
with flower petals was a little strange. And I didn’t need the surprise
chocolate meringue cookies and little hazelnut tarts after a dessert of rhubarb
strudel with maple nut ice cream. But it was a nice touch, just the same.
On the way out, I walked among the
gardens where many of the
greens, herbs and flowers used in my dinner are grown. The bite is going to come
when the credit card bill arrives. Still, I'm glad I experienced it,
and that the people there were so welcoming to a solo diner.
Photos: Ellen Perlman
1. Heron in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, behind the Sooke Harbour House Hotel and Restaurant. Sooke, British Columbia.
2. A flavorful salad, with ingredients from the restaurant's garden.