Counter Culture: Tales of A Girl Eating Alone
It has always been me, at the counter, by myself. If I recall my most favorite meals, my most treasured food travel memories, my most excited moments, it’s me, alone, at a bar, eating in a foreign place.
When I tell people I travel alone, I get a mix of reactions: the first is always a slight head tilt met with great concern.
“Aren’t you scared?” is usually the first question, followed by the annoyingly persistent and unhelpful tip: “You need to be careful.”
Yet there I was, taking my first trip abroad alone in Spain with just a map and a journal. No wifi, no partner. This became a tradition that would carry me through Bogota, San Francisco, Chicago, Uruguay, Buenos Aires, Montréal and small towns back home in the states. They emerged as places where I could soak in joyful aloneness, be presented with food I often dreamed of or only saw on television and meet strangers who would not only become lifelong memories but more often than not, lifelong friends.
It always starts with an innocent curiosity. Me, with an almost uncontrollable thirst to be somewhere new, spontaneously booking trips for myself without giving any thought to inviting others or assessing a proper budget. Them, confused and wanting to understand the sight of a woman of color enjoying time by herself and how I got there. I have traveled selfishly this way for almost a decade now and have never looked back, thanks to the kindness of countless AirBnB hosts, local bloggers and internet-turned-IRL friends. Heightening my street smarts, sporting a resting bitch face and determined to be in bed before midnight, I have often avoided otherwise looming dangers people tend to think a young woman might face. Instead of fearing the unknown as a solo traveler — the language, city, people, food, transit — I dare to face it, chasing a feeling of accomplishment.
Spain: Summer 2010
In Barcelona I buried myself at corner cafes eating bikini hot ham and cheese sandwiches (the name bikini mimicking the shape that resembles women’s beach bottoms) and drinking frothy, milky coffee in the middle of the afternoon.
In San Sebastian I discovered evening tapas crawls in packed bars with Aussie backpackers like Luke (the most popular tourists, I’m convinced. Damn their long holidays!) along small cobblestone streets and cold, thinly sliced, potato-layered omelettes chased with cava poured by old men the next morning.
Standing elbow to elbow, my feet barely staying on the ground, I swam through a haze of locals barking tapas orders to the guys behind the bar every night. If this was back home I’d be furious (actually, I wouldn’t have even set foot into such a crowd), but here in Spain, I was smiling ear to ear, happy to be smushed as I got the courage to shout my orders of boquerones back across the room.
Madrid was where I learned that following where old men in town hung out would always lead to delicious, cheap food in small out-of-the-way places. It was also the final stop on that first solo trip abroad and where I convinced new hostel mates Nick, Austin and Mike from Pennsylvania of my travel tips. Seven years later we still recount those three days in Madrid, and exchange stories from the passport stamps we’ve collected ever since.
Hours of meandering and sight-seeing was always rewarded by a mid-day meal alone. I’d spot an interesting looking older gentleman, or group of gentlemen, inside an even older looking and often tiny restaurant laughing and heavy in conversation. That was my clue that something good was in there. I’d walk in, take a seat at the counter, eager to order the same dish.
San Francisco: September 2014
San Francisco’s Tosca Cafe confirmed my hypothesis that if you’re a woman pulling up a stool at a bar, or sitting by yourself, you will immediately be befriended by the bartender and the strangers sitting next to you. For me, it has always started like this and ended in serendipitous celebration. The sight of a five-foot-two, teenage-looking girl by herself, ordering a drink and looking perfectly content being alone will trigger confusion, curiosity then conversation.
The day I landed in San Francisco no one was available or interested in joining me at April Bloomfield’s newest Italian restaurant. I had been smitten with the British chef for years but her episode on The Mind of a Chef inspired a new level of adoration — and a brand new restaurant in a city I was visiting soon. It was about 5:30pm when I made the choice, a choice I had made so many times before, to just go it alone. I was just one person after all, and the doors had just opened, so surely I thought I’d be able to get a seat at the bar.
The red neon lights invited me in and I was greeted by a handsome bartender, suited up and ready to serve.
“Just me,” I said. A few pleasantries exchanged, he quickly assured me I’d be taken care of.
First up, fried crispy potatoes: hot, hollow, garlic-y crunchy bits that left me licking my fingers. Sensing my delight, he then poured me what’s known as “dealer’s choice” - a custom cocktail of his choosing - just for me. Fizzy, citrusy and full of gin, it was here that I discovered dealer’s choice was the best way to order a drink.
Shortly after, two young women, living in the Mission I later learned, walked up to the seats to my right and asked if they could sit down.
“You’re visiting San Francisco by yourself? That’s so cool! Where’d you go? What’d you see?”
The inquiries began. We bonded over our love for walking alone through new cities and suddenly began to share dinner plates. The bucatini arrived next: a small plate of spaghetti cooked in a spicy, chunky tomato and chili sauce. Their fascination with my continuous decision to leave my partner behind on these trips caught our bartender’s attention, who then joined in on the fun.
The hours (and drinks) flew by and last I remember we were served the infamous house special: bourbon filled cappuccino brewed from a machine dating back to the year 1919. Plus, a thick slice of tiramisu to top things off. I stumbled out of the restaurant near midnight and thought, “This. This is why I love traveling alone.”
Chicago: March 2016
I was in Chicago for a work event and snuck in a few days earlier for much-needed fun before my bosses arrived and the stress of running another big tech conference would hit. Chicago is one of those cities where I instantly feel at home the moment I land. I let out a sigh of relief, suck in the air and quite literally prance with excitement towards the Blue Line downtown.
I was in the mood for steak, specifically French bistro style with all the fixings. And red wine, a glass of Malbec would hit the spot. Immediately, I thought of Joey now writing about food at the Tribune. He, like me, had recently quit New York City for a better life in a smaller city he loved. When you have the privilege of calling the Deputy Food Editor at the Chicago Tribune a good friend, wonderful meals can happen.
“You gotta go to Bavette’s in River North,” he advised. Unable to join me for dinner, we hugged goodbye. I strolled past Wacker Drive, stopping atop the Wells Street bridge to catch a glimpse of the street lights reflecting on the Chicago River below.
I peered through the velvet curtains to find a grand bar stuck in time. Reds and golds defined the walls, the couches, the lights. I found a perfect spot at the bar right in the middle – the best spot for a short person like me to get the much-needed attention of the bartender.
“A glass of the Malbec and then I’ll do the filet mignon, petite duchess cut, medium, with the loaded baked potato.” I didn’t hesitate. There I sat happy as can be, eating a steak the size of my head as the bartender nervously watched.
Uruguay: February 2015
It’d been called “the best beachside restaurant on the planet” by Bon Appetit and it’d been on top of my bucket list for several years. At the edge of South America, right above Buenos Aires and snug against the Rio Grande is Uruguay. Look closer and you will find the edges of the tiny country dotted with beach towns you’ve probably never heard of. A forty-five minute drive north from Punta del Este, referred to as the Miami of Uruguay, lies the sleepy town of José Ignacio that awakes for its famed restaurant, La Huella.
This beachside bungalow is where Latin America’s rich and famous line up for hours, drooling over the must-be-part-time models wait staff and owners-now-celebrities whose job is to make sure your glass is never not filled with wine. I spent almost eight hours here in one day alone, moving from bar stool to lounge table to sandy beach (where I fell into a deep, wine-fueled nap) and back as my new Brazilian friends ordered one of everything off the menu. Over bottles of Tannat, we dug into the catch of the day, whole grilled sea bass, head on, and fell in love with the dulce de leche house dessert: a molten volcano cake with vanilla ice cream and oatmeal raisin cookies. As my fork broke the just-out-of-the oven-still-too-jiggly cake, a flood of silky caramel spilled onto my plate. Sweet, rich, decadent, and absolutely worth traveling for.
Montréal: Thanksgiving 2017
My first Thanksgiving to myself. It took several months, but I managed to score a reservation for one (sorry, Philippe), the only available seat that night at Liverpool House. Straight from the Montréal airport I hopped on the bus to the Quebecois pub I had discovered on “The Layover” episode where Bourdain fed his gluttony.
I saw the reserved sign waiting for me and there was just enough room to wiggle my way onto the high chair, careful to keep my elbows in and not disturb the other patrons who all seemed too busy to pay attention to the giddy American who’d just arrived.
A foie gras breakfast sandwich was the first thing I noticed on the menu. I knew right then I had made the best choice to trade in American turkey for goose liver.
First dish: a foie salad. Two thick slabs of the liver pâté topped with sea salt and cracked pepper corn, on a bed of bitter greens lightly dressed with lemon vinaigrette. Creamy, silky, then sour and crunchy. Washed down with red wine.
Next dish: smoked cod croquettes topped with salmon roe. Smoky, like the char from a grill, flaky, then sweet. Washed down with more red wine.
I decided to take a chance and walk next door. Perhaps their sister restaurant, which was part of my original plan, Joe Beef, would let me in without a reservation. I was determined to eat at all the same places Bourdain did and couldn’t imagine missing the opportunity to see the foie-obsessed owners in person.
“No, but I’m hoping since it’s just me you might have a seat open at the bar?”
The host disappeared into the back and returned a few minutes later, smirking.
“You’re very lucky. We have exactly one seat at the back bar. Right this way.”
I was in! Through the maze of brown dinner tables, winter coats and skinny hallways we walked, me eyeing up everything on everyone’s tables, till we reached, in fact, the one lone seat at the bar. He took my luggage and I propped myself up on the stool.
Another glass of red wine, this time a Georgian red, per the friendly bartender’s recommendation. To my left, an older couple, in their sixties I guessed, enjoying a night out and patiently waiting for me to settle in.