To eat out alone is to partake of such experiences. And if you happen to be a woman dining alone, you also happen to be exercising a hard-won right, one that still doesn’t exist everywhere.
“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; she never drove through London in an omnibus or had luncheon in a shop by herself.”
Indeed, generations of women simply weren’t allowed to dine alone in restaurants and bars. As late as the beginning of the twentieth century, New Yorkers were debatinglegislative bills about whether women should be allowed to eat out without a male escort.
And it wasn’t just men who wanted to keep the status quo. “I believe it is a protection to all decent women that women alone should not be allowed to eat in public restaurants,” said a member of the Women’s Republican Club in 1908, according to the New York Times. Despite the objection, the club passed a resolution favoring a bill that would allow women to dine in public places without a male escort.
Doing so, however, continued to be difficult, not for a little while, but for decades. As one restaurateur told the Times in 1964: If a “good-looking lady without a partner asks for a table, you wonder why she is alone and I’ve had my experience with that situation!” It wasn’t uncommon for women alone to be presumed to be like the women in paintings by Van Gogh and Manet—prostitutes.
Things weren’t much better in 1970. A New York magazine article that year began: “In this most liberal of cities, a woman has no legally guaranteed right to enter a restaurant.” When Mother Courage, the country’s first feminist restaurant (according to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation), opened two years later, 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 women are still reporting the same problems experienced by Alexander’s generation.
Yet despite decades of unwanted attention dining out by herself, could wax poetic about its pleasures. Fellow food writer Marion Cunningham, a champion of family mealtime, also appreciated solo dining: “Sometimes eating supper alone feels private, quiet, and blessedly liberating,” she wrote in her popular Supper Book, where she devoted a page to “Supper Alone.” There she briefly extolls the sorts of unconventional meals that can be enjoyed alone (she liked a baked potato with olive oil and coarse pepper and salt, followed by vanilla ice cream) as well as the opportunity to cook something restorative (for her, it was split pea soup).
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.”
Rosenbloom, Stephanie. Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.