Eating with Others in Mind
Illustrations by Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell
Sometimes a perfectly great meal can be ruined with poor service, a nice dinner ruined by an unsavory companion; or a convivial party’s spirit is dampened by overcooked meats and bland, underwhelming vegetables.
Recently an otherwise blissful evening at Astoria’s romantic Italian restaurant and wine bar, Vite Vinosteria, was nearly ruined by an incorrigible pair seated beside me at the bar.
I was high on the energy of feminist writer and author Roxane Gay (after hearing her read at Astoria Bookshop) and ravenous, when I happened upon this neighborhood gem helmed by alums of Manhattan’s Cipriani. Full of neighborhood charm, Vite Vinosteria’s rustic wood interiors played host to candlelit two-tops and a borderline raucous dinner party taking place at the back table; bustling servers passed plates of salumi, gleaming arancini and hot skillets bearing linguine and clams, lamb ragu and housemade gnocchi. There was a 20-minute wait for a table, but as a solo diner, I had no trouble sliding onto a bar stool for a peaceful dinner and wine with my book.
Solo dining is not a novelty to me; it’s my usual, and enough essays have been written extolling the virtues of the solitary culinary experience that I do not feel the need to convince you. It’s not for everyone, but it sure as hell is for me. However, I believe my meal would have been saved by a companion on this particular night, in order to drown out the bumbling and obnoxious mating rituals of the couple to my right who I gathered to be on their third date.
My Argentinian malbec was smooth, buttery almost—got me watering at the tongue sides.
Bearded men in puffy jackets sipped on wine across from sleek-tailored and manicured dates, contrasted by some of the grayer clientele—nonas and grandads kicking back and uncorking at their usual Friday night spot. At the bar, I was flanked by bros and the women who love them, but I didn’t care. I had a used copy of the award-winning actor Alan Cumming’s memoir to read until my food arrived—the pappardelle alla bolognese, an al dente homemade ribbon pasta with meat sauce, perfect for fork-twirling, perfect for savoring.
Between bites of Italian perfection, I didn’t have to eavesdrop to be bombarded by the surreal date taking place mere inches from my ears, which longed for earplugs or headphones to drown out the drivel.
The man started things off with some ice breaker questions like, “If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, who would it be?” “When was the last time someone truly disappointed you?”
He asked confidently, and was not dissuaded when his lady companion said, “Really? You’re going to ask me these small talk quiz questions?”
I celebrated for a moment, thinking tonight’s the night this mansplainer will get his comeuppance. I was wrong. Roxane’s sold-out reading packed with cheering feminists and literary tote bags felt
a world away.
“I’m 14 years older than you. I could be your dad,” the man guffawed, knowing how hilarious and sensual it is to make your date associate you with their father.
“It scares me,” replied the 26-year-old doe-eyed redhead, an employee at a law firm who was torn between pursuing her unnamed creative passions and living a life of comfort,
ease and predictability.
Throughout the night, she repeated that refrain over and over, with relish. “I’m scared.”
Each time, he replied with a new tagline.
“That’s because you’re a baby.”
“I’m going to give you some advice. Now, this is a very 40-year-old thing to say…”
I’m not here to judge. I was there for the food, not the sideshow. When I first peered inside the restaurant and realized there would be a wait, I turned on my heel, but only made it a few feet before ducking back. The warmth of the maître d' at the door and the smell of fresh pastas; the lure of comfort made me return.
But sumptuous noodles in an exquisite, yet simple sauce were drowned out by these two. I quickly grew tired of them and began visibly pouting over my skillet. They were loud enough for the entire bar to hear of their proud breeding and Ivy League pedigree—called on to impress the other, and improve the chance that meatballs with pecorino could lead to pillow talk, if not happily ever after with a white picket fence.
As if to say sorry for my poor luck in having been seated next to these two, the whip-smart, conspiratorial bartender brought me a small platter of (off-menu) chef-made brownie bites covered in powdered sugar. They tasted faintly of dates, and I was grateful for my consolation prize for a disturbed evening.
I filled out a comment card: “Thank-you for saving me/making my evening more bearable since I’m next to that horrible couple.” I paid my bill, gathered my things and as I got up to leave, the staff looked at me knowingly and we laughed aloud, sharing our little commiserative secret. I took my doggie bag with me—the leftover noodles were enjoyed a day later in sacral silence, from the comfort of my bed.
31-05 34th St, Astoria, NY 11106