Two-story high glass walls opened the restaurant to the Circular Quay. Lights from nearby moored boats reflected on the water. More lights from surrounding high-rises decked the sky. A vase of fresh flowers graced the formal table service. Dressed for the opera, I took my seat at a table for four, set for one.
Eating alone in public must be the greatest dread many single travelers face. Early in my wanderings I used room service to avoid what I imagined were the pitiful stares of group diners. I’m convinced many people marry just to have companionship while dining out. I understood why as I celebrated a milestone birthday at the Sydney Opera House, alone.
The event was a double milestone. Not only had I reached a certain age but more importantly, I had fulfilled a life’s goal. Many years before, when it seemed an impossible dream, I decided I would set foot on all seven continents. The trip to Australia brought home number seven.
I booked the evening months before departure, choosing the most expensive dining option on the Opera House property as a prelude to attending a play in one of the five theaters. I expected a built-in set of friends from among my tour mates to share my celebration. But out of 20 people, I was the only one who had booked at the elegant Bennelong restaurant.
The menu offered four choices for each of three courses and a full bottle of Samillon Chardonnay. Everything seemed as if it were planned for more than one. The servers attended without intruding, the food enticed with aroma and taste. The scene begged for seduction.
The restaurant filled with groups and couples. Two ladies of my generation sat at the next table but most diners seemed paired with romantic partners. I concentrated on the menu. To honor the special occasion I chose daring dishes. For an entree, as Australians call the first course, I ordered baby octopus grilled with red pepper.
The air rang with lively conversation and laughter as I ate half the tender tentacles and hid the rest under the bed of arugula. By the time the main, or entree, arrived, I suspected some diners viewed my aloneness with pity and others with admiration for my braving the world of fine dining alone. While I savored saffron fettuccine with seasoned tomato sauce and pureed olive paste garnishing bay scallops, I wondered how many of them would have missed this moment if a companion were unavailable.
By dessert time the noise level peaked at a nearby table of 10. Earlier they borrowed one of my spare chairs. The chestnut nougat parfait arrived in a wedge drenched with vanilla bean sauce and garnished with a caramel wafer. Even that scrumptious mélange didn’t console me. I still had only the waiters to share praise of the delightful meal (except for the octopus), but I was alone with my milestones.
As if reading my thoughts, one of the ladies at the next table leaned my way and asked if I would like to join them for dessert. Would I! At the depth of my self-pity, strangers reached out to lift my spirits. Giving them no time to change their minds, I scooted my chair to a corner of their table bringing my parfait and the half-full bottle of wine. We exchanged praise for the meal and service, toasted the intoxicating atmosphere and traded tales about how our paths came to meet at that place, at that moment.
One of the ladies lived in London, the other Toronto, and they met for vacation every few years. They had been sailing the Whitsunday Islands on the Gretel, the Australian yacht that defeated the American Challenger in the 1986 America’s Cup. This was a special time for them as well, but they put their own needs on hold to cheer a lonely stranger. Their kindness gave me a warmer glow than the wine and more comfort than the after-dinner coffee and chocolates.
Those caring ladies allowed me to share the personal meaning of the event with someone who appreciated it, and to connect with someone who understood the experience firsthand. That fleeting encounter turned the evening into the shared celebration it was meant to be. Once again, food brought people together.
Now when I see people dining alone, even when I’m with someone, I try to make contact, to put a sense of sharing into their moment. And I no longer hide behind room service when traveling alone. Instead, I think of my Opera House pals as I dress for dinner and wonder who I’ll find at neighboring tables.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Carol Celeste is a professional writer, who lives in Orange California. She teaches online personal essay writing at www.writingtoheal.com. Her work covers general nonfiction, travel, small business promotioin, book reviews, long and short fiction and poetry.)