Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Eating alone in a foreign city

I haven't posted here for a long time, and my life is not currently conducive to writing anything new. So instead I thought I would post the story I wrote (based on four blog posts on Something Else to Eat) about eating alone in a foreign city.  I read this as a short piece for the Food History Symposium last weekend. No pictures - just words.

Eating alone in a foreign city

When I travel abroad now, I inevitably spend some time on my own – a few days, a week - in unfamiliar cities. I really don’t mind during the day, and mostly I really enjoy myself. In many ways it’s easier being able to do exactly what I choose, without having to negotiate with anyone else. But in the evening there is always the problem of dinner.
For me, going out to eat every night in a strange city is a tricky business. As a woman alone, with poor night vision and a dim sense of direction, I don’t like to stray too far from my hotel after dark, and I need well-lit streets with plenty of people around.
I could of course use taxis, but that would require a special destination worth the effort. On my own, that’s not what I’m after. I’m not chasing Michelin stars or tracking down the nasty bits. I want a modest menu featuring local dishes that are appealing and interesting without being utterly unfamiliar. At least two courses, not too expensive, and preferably eaten alongside at least some local people, rather than solely other foreign tourists.
But other things matter too.  One problem with the kind of travel where I’m not staying in houses of any kind, with kitchens, is that it’s always necessary to go out for dinner.  After a while, that can seem like a chore rather than a pleasure. The right place to go will be somewhere I can  return to over several nights. I want a small sense of comfort, of being accepted, so that I can feel at least a little known and at home.
In Barcelona the nearby streets were a little too smart. I ate well enough, more than once at the bright theatre restaurant with the marvellous name of El Glop. It served simple, filling Catalan dishes such as sausage and beans, the waiters dealt efficiently and for the most part kindly with me, and I enjoyed my toasted bread, main course and glass of wine each night. But it was simply food.
In Madrid everything changed. By then I had got my bearings a little better with Spanish food in general; and I was very pleased to find that unlike Barcelona, many of the local restaurants served a well-priced menu of the day at night, not just at lunchtime. So the first afternoon, I tried searching on the net for well-reviewed restaurants near my hotel.
One stood out straight away: La Sanabresa. It seemed to be only a few minutes’ walk away, straight up the main street and down a side lane with the memorable name of Calle Amor de Dios - Love of God Street. But just to be sure, I set off to find it in daylight.  It was plain and unpretentious, and the menu in the window looked promising – it seemed to be the nearest thing I’d found to Spanish home cooking.
I went back at exactly 8.30, when it opened for dinner. In my experience, no waiter or maitre d’ looks pleased to see a lone diner, but in a still fairly empty restaurant they usually seat you without any fuss.  And I know better than to commandeer one of the romantic little window tables clearly designed for couples.
In Lyon once, the proprietor of an almost empty restaurant told me bluntly that he had no tables for one.  Of course not, I said, in my perfectly presentable French, but there are plenty of tables for two, and I am a widow. But if I give you one of those, he said, a couple might arrive and want it.  I was so taken aback at this rare burst of rudeness and rejection that I turned and walked out. Too late, I realised what I should have said:  “J’espère, Monsieur, que lorsque votre femme sera veuve, elle ne tombera jamais sur un restaurateur comme vous.” I hope, monsieur, that when your wife becomes a widow, she never comes across a restaurant owner like you.
No such shocks at La Sanabresa.  With a wave of his hand, the magnificently moustached waiter invited me to sit where I liked. The table I chose was wedged neatly between two larger tables, and I could sit with my back to the wall looking out into the room and observing everyone else.
To my great pleasure, all the entrees were vegetables. I chose the garlic mushrooms, the meatballs, and the flan.  Then I turned to the wine list and asked for a glass of rioja.  The waiter (who had very little English) held up his hand, and pointed to the words I had missed:  the 11 euro menu included not only three courses and bread, but also half a bottle of wine.  Tinto, blanco? Tinto, definitely.  He looked approving, and dashed away to see to it.
Just as well I had arrived on time. By now the restaurant was rapidly filling up with locals – mostly groups of friends, with a sprinkling of couples and a few other solitary diners.  The mushrooms were excellent, the meatballs a little bland but still interesting, and the flan – which turned out to be my favourite crème caramel – was perfect: rich, smooth and darkly sauced.  And the wine was perfectly drinkable. Everyone, including me, seemed to enjoy their dinners immensely.  By the time I left, I’d worked out what I was going to have next time, partly on the basis of what I’d seen arrive at the neighbouring tables.
Again I made sure to arrive promptly, and the waiter ushered me straight to the same table. He seemed pleased to see me.  I knew very well that as a passing tourist, even a returning one, I was just a tiny blip on the steady radar of his regulars. And yet I wanted him to like me, to approve of my choices, to appreciate me.  
One thing I think he really did appreciate was my decisiveness – no confused tourist dithering.  Grilled asparagus, grilled dorado with salad, bianco. Dessert was more of a dilemma. Should it be the flan again, since it was so good? Or (in the interests of research) should I try the torta de queso, cheesecake, which I envisaged as some rustic Spanish version? 
The cheesecake turned out to be a mistake - a small slice of some spongy, creamy confection topped with raspberry glaze, obviously bought in. I should have asked if it was casero (the equivalent of French maison). To offset this disappointment, I had to buy two little shortbreads from the still-open bakery on the way home, to munch in my room with Lady Grey tea. 
Because that's what happens on holiday by yourself - every small success or good decision is magnified, and so is every small mistake.  Wrong: Bypassing the hake with green sauce for what turned out to be a rather boring cod and orange salad in Cordoba. Right: Finding a sublime custard tart, served with a beautiful big glass mug of excellent black tea, to pass the time while entirely avoiding the ugly concrete complex for the cult of Our Lady of Fatima.
On the third night I was feeling slightly off-colour, so something fairly plain was called for: thin crisp eggplant fritters with lemon, and roast pork with mashed potato - always my favourite comfort food, and Harvey's too.  For dessert, no mucking around – the flan.
At the next table, two young Japanese (yes, there were some – they read Tripadvisor too) were having trouble with the menu. So I offered to help, and the waiter thanked me. At the end I splashed out on a small decaf espresso, and asked him if I could take his photo. He took the camera from me, handed it to the Japanese couple and bent down beside me so they could take us both. In my fragmentary Spanish I managed to tell him (I think) that I would come for one more night, and then I had to leave.
On my last night I had roasted red peppers with garlic and flakes of tuna, excellent cod in tomato sauce, and house made tiramisu. But the main courses I had been ordering from the 11 euro menu had migrated to the 13 euro one - still a great deal. Perhaps this was because it was Friday, which seemed to be family date night: there were more tables for two or four, filled with middle aged couples and small family groups.
My waiter dealt with them all with his usual speed and aplomb. And I learnt his name – Joaquín. He proudly brought over a laminated copy of a 2003 piece by the restaurant critic for the New York Times. It praised the restaurant handsomely, and paid special tribute to him and his moustache.
I told him my name too, and when I stood up to go we shook hands. He came with me to the door, I managed to say "Adios, mi amigo”, and he embraced me. I turned for home (well, the hotel) feeling pleasurably sad.

Then he came rushing out after me, saying "Sorry!"  I had forgotten my scarf. Real life endings are never quite like the movies. 


  1. I imagined I was there Anne. Lovely to read about some of your time in Spain

  2. You are such a wonderful writer Anne Else. transported me for several minutes. Thank-you.
    Eileen B