The rising OK-ness of a table for one

“We love our single diners!” gushed the genial manager at Girl & the Goat in Chicago on a recent Thursday night. I believed her. She was sincere, direct and almost giddy.

I was eating alone, again, as I do when I travel solo, which is 99-percent of the time. Have no pity. This is something I relish, the quietude and solitude of dining companionless. Not that I don’t like eating with others. I do. But solo is its own sensation — cool, uncluttered, zen.


Look at this guy. He’s dining alone, and he still looks suave.

I’ve eaten alone in restaurants around the world scores if not hundreds of times. What once might have been a mite squirmy and self-conscious is now a cinch, and a joy. Like going to the movies alone (the best way), eating singly is woefully underrated. (Haunting bars solo is a lonelier proposition, but it’s still totally doable, at times even rewarding.)

Eateries have evolved and they are now equipped, ready and happily accommodating of the one-man show. I have no, er, reservations about making a reservation for one, and the staffers on the other end never pause, hiccup or flinch when they hear that some weird single guy is coming. Nowadays a table for one is entirely normal. Any uncomfortable vibes are coming from your end only. I’ve never felt strange or alienated dining out with me and myself.

9Go. Relax. Be seated and order a cocktail or a glass of wine. I used to bring reading material to the table, a magazine or travel guide — like the hapless fellow in “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” — but no more. (For one, it’s invariably too dark to read anything. I’m at the point where I have to use the light of the table’s feeble candle to read the menu.) And I’m not one to obsessively tap, scroll and stare hypnotically at my smartphone. So I instead observe, look around and listen — the time-honored sport of people watching.

When it’s early, well before the dinner crush, I’m known to sit at the bar with my laptop and have a small bite and a beer, which I did last week at Longman & Eagle in Chicago, a winsome gastropub with a kicky, rustic flair. I emailed ahead for the best hours to pull out a computer and to confirm the place has free Wi-Fi.

Any stigma attached to the idea of lone dining is dated and moribund. At Avec in Chicago I sat at the bar with an unbroken row of single diners. A few chatted with the stranger next to them, others (me) kept to themselves and saved conversation for the empathetic, fiercely attentive server who coddled me just enough that I didn’t feel fawned over.

There are perils to eating out alone. Servers tend to have the urge to rush the meal, so if I’ve ordered three courses, instead of staggering them leisurely, the server will pile them on, and I wind up with three full plates waiting to be tackled at once. I call this shoving food down your throat and shoving you out the door (this has happened to me at least three times recently). Rushing the plates, it’s as if the lone eater cannot be left without something in front of him, lest he perish from loneliness.


View from the bar at Frenchie in Paris. Close to the action, with great, personalized interaction. That’s owner, head chef and all-around mensch Gregory Marchand. I had the best seat in the house.

Tip: Sit at the bar. Servers tend to be more attentive and personalized and there’s less of a chance of a plate pile-up because the area is busier and service slows somewhat. Communication, from illuminating details about the menu to cordial chit-chat, reigns.

Plus, the scenery at the bar is superior — a stool with a view. If you’re lucky, there’s an open kitchen, where you can witness the artful commotion of chefs in the tentacled frenzy of culinary creation. Bodies swerve and dodge, flames lick the ceiling, delicacies are chopped and seared and tossed, plates are decorated as meticulously as a Buddhist sand mandala. Art happens. For the wide-eyed foodie, it’s the frisson of salivating spectacle, a bonus main course, with extra dessert.


Eating, walking, rocking, Chicago style


View from the 95th floor bar-lounge in the John Hancock Building.

The first thing I did in Chicago was get a drink. There for fun from last Thursday to yesterday, I took the elevator in the famed Hancock Building (at a clip of 22 mph), which was smack next-door to my hotel in the lake-kissed Gold Coast, and landed in The Signature Lounge on the 95th floor.


My hotel abutting Hancock Building.

It’s all about the eye-popping view. But after the hassles of airport travel, it was as much about a decompressing dram. Like the view, the drink prices were waaay up.

The catch: Going one floor higher to the official observation deck costs a smidge more than a Signature drink. So it works out: same view, less money, plus a cocktail and a seat at the window. My blackberry gin and tonic, mighty fine, cost a few cents less than $19, pre-tip. Ghastly, sure. But again, a better deal than what the higher (and dryer) chumps upstairs got.

It was a refreshing and dazzling beginning to the trip, which would take me on a three-hour walking food tour (very good, but too many sweets), Millennium Park, the International Museum of Surgical Science (shoutout to blogger Jessica — you would love this place), the Art Institute of Chicago (boo — no “American Gothic”; it’s on loan), Frank Lloyd Wright’s world-famous Robie House, an exhilarating play about teenage-girl soccer players called “The Wolves” (it was a Pulitzer finalist), an iffy concert of all-female punk bands at legendary dive bar The Empty Bottle, and a superlative array of eateries running the gastronomical gamut.

Yes, I did, as sworn, order and devour the fabled roasted pig face — and it was amazing. That was at the charming and bustling Girl & the Goat, where I also ate calamari bruschetta and grilled broccoli, all of it savory and spectacular.

Chicago is like a cozier New York with a tang all its own — a little Midwest, a little metropolis. It’s thronged and noisy, but contained and sleek, despite ragged edges any city worth its urban bona fides possesses.

The “El” trains will deafen you, while its uber-original hot dogs and pizza will soothe and sate. It’s got a lake so big it looks like an ocean and it’s steeped in cracked-leather tradition that makes so much of it seem early-20th century old school. Like Al Capone old school. Like lots of restaurants called Joe’s. But it’s also ever-changing, of course, with farm to table bistros, elegant bars, hip cafes and cutting-edge art. Its modernity is palpable.

It is, in its sneaky little way, deeply seductive.


Roasted pig face, succulent layers of meat with potato crisps under the runny egg. This signature dish at the adamantly popular Girl & the Goat was the highlight of the night, and perhaps the trip.


Calamari bruschetta (clam baguette, goat milk ricotta, goat bacon, green apples) at Girl & the Goat. Perfectly firm yet silky squid with the creamiest, velvet-like ricotta. Kaleidoscopic flavors, sweet, tart and savory — a tastebud tango.


Pricey drinks, priceless views, 95 stories high.


Anish Kapoor’s glistening Cloud Gate sculpture, aka the Bean, in Millennium Park. People swarm the ginormous orb, gazing at the skyline and themselves in its curved silvery skin.


Same, in the Loop district of the city, Millennium Park.


Butcher steak at the phenomenal Avec, a massively in-demand Mediterranean-tinged joint that hit every note just right, with music to spare. The must-have dish, which I had and almost wept over, is the chorizo-stuffed dates. Divine. Meanwhile, this steak, piled with tender fennel, was marvelously otherworldly.


Frank Lloyd Wright’s elegant Robie House was finished in 1910 and is part of the iconic architect’s Prairie period. It’s simple yet granular in its considered details that only Wright was doing at the time — from windows and furniture to lighting and rugs. It’s one of the most important examples of residential architecture in America. Undergoing renovations, it can be a little musty in some rooms, but the informative tour highlights what makes the building a grand marriage of form and function.


The sublime Art Institute of Chicago boasts one of the largest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world, as well as such masterstrokes as Seurat’s giant pointillist gem “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist,”  Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and a flotilla of other indelible works by Degas, Magritte, Dali, Warhol, Giacometti, et al, not to mention exhibits of African and Asian art and a large spread of Chicago’s specialty, architecture. Huge and handsome, the venue is like a combo of NYC’s MoMA and The Met — a magnificent aesthetic amusement park.


The perfect classic Chicago-style hot dog, or “red hot,” that’s been, as they say, “dragged through the garden.” It overflows its poppyseed bun with celery salt, a dill pickle spear, peppers, tomatoes and onions. For three bucks at famed Portillo’s, it was a thoroughly delicious snack.

Tippling, Russian style

In St. Petersburg, Russia, recently, no one in a bar bumptiously offered me a shot of vodka as I had been cautioned they would. (Sad face emoji.) The only offers came from poised waiters in nice restaurants — not from chummy, drunky, rambunctious imbibers who wanted me to be their new American comrade in guzzling. This, surely, is a good thing.

I took it slow and easy, tossing back my first shots of the typically clear, but sometimes amber, libation in the controlled environment of the illuminating Russia Vodka Museum, an expansive and engrossing shrine to Russia’s national beverage.


Guide Veronica explaining the vodkas I was about to gulp.

In a brisk and fact-packed 30 minutes I was shown the place by the delightful, fluently-English Veronica as my personal guide. I learned scads about the history of Russian vodka, from pre-Ivan the Terrible days in the 12th century to Putin’s relationship with the gullet-stinging spirit. The museum is top-shelf, full of text (in Russian, alas), colorful bottles, distillery artifacts, Stalin-era propaganda and unintentionally comical human wax figures. It’s thorough and classy.

If you opt for it — and you must — the tour concludes with a vodka tasting of three regional samples, and includes “chasers” of pickle, herring and onions and something else that escaped me but was fishy and delicious. The tour and tasting cost barely more than $10 US, a steal.


Three shots, three edible chasers.

Before my only official shot of vodka in a bar-restaurant setting, I became a regular at the enchanting Dead Poets, a relaxed, stylish gastrobar where the bartenders are hipster mixologists with expert instincts and eye-crossing dexterity. They fashion quite the concoctions — like my favorite, the whiskey sour, which they do with care and panache — that are elaborate and fanciful but just the right amount of modest and unembarrassing. Nothing was too fru-fru, too tawdry, despite the simpatico bartenders’ twee haircuts and rococo facial hair.


Best whiskey sour, ever. Notice the egg-white froth.

No, my sole shot of ice-cold vodka (curiously, the shots at the museum were room temperature) occurred at the acclaimed Duo Gastrobar, a tiny, mid-range restaurant, serving delectable meals, like amazing bone marrow with ginger sauce and crunchy apple pork rib.

Dessert menu? Pass. Let’s move on to liquid pleasures. For about $4 Duo offered one kind of vodka, the classic Beluga Noble, in a shot. Vodka in Russia, they say, must be served chilled, otherwise send it back. This was a frosty, good-sized shot, with lemon slices to bite after quaffing it down. Vodka, of course, is the smoothest liquor to shoot, as it tastes of hardly more than alcohol fumes. It has character if scant flavor.


The lone chilled vodka shot in Russia.

As he delivered it, my server volunteered his confusion as to why vodka is his country’s national drink when tequila and whiskey, for instance, contain so much more texture and nuance. True, I nodded, and we laughed. But it was bracing and fine and if I wasn’t heading over to another bar, the youthful, disco-lighted Mishka, where drinks are two-for-one during a very long happy hour, I’d have ordered another. When in Russia …

How to drink vodka (or not) with that Russian swagger


It sounds like the most rancid cultural cliche, but I keep hearing that vodka shots are a compulsory part of visiting Russia if you go to local bars, which I most surely am. Ritual reigns. Toasts, garrulous and heartfelt, are mandatory. Friendships are forged over the clear, biting liquid. Backslaps, perhaps high-fives (please no), succeed the flaming gulps. Vodka is a social lube, a social glue. After a week in St. Petersburg next month, I fear that I’m going to have made dozens of new (bibulous) friends and wind up with the squinchy elfin aspect of this fellow:


“The national drink is an inseparable part of Russian social life. Vodka is drunk everywhere, with the intention of breaking down inhibitions and producing a state of conviviality Russians refer to as dusha-dushe (soul-to-soul). When a Russian taps his throat, beware: it’s impossible to refuse this invitation to friendship.”

So writes The New York Times. “Impossible to refuse this invitation to friendship”? I will find ways. I can be terrifically anti-social. I don’t want to be around too many guys who “taps his throat” as an alarm bell to guzzle a shot I might not want. I get more than two shots from these tipplers, well, then, comrade, my nice relaxing night at the bar may quite be over. I’ll take a beer, sir, and the check, and … who in hell pays for those shots? I have a stinky feeling I’m getting stuck with the bill.


I hate Russia. I hate vodka.

Not really. Indeed, I have firm, jazzed plans to visit St. Petersburg’s newish Russia Vodka Museum, dubbed “excellent” by Lonely Planet, a glassy, liquidy historical survey of the beverage through storied, stumbling Russian yore. A 30-minute guided tour in English and sizable samples of three vodkas with traditional Russian snacks — pickles! herring! — is about $10, and I’m dimly gobsmacked. That sounds pretty fine.

I love Russia. I love vodka.


Russia Vodka Museum. Looks like a well-stocked vodka bar. As it should.

Vodka in Slavic means “little water,” but it seems more like big water in Russia. Supposedly invented in Poland, the drink’s name was first recorded in Russia in the late 1700s. Today there are hundreds of brands of vodka available there, though I doubt my go-to, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, a Texas upstart, moves many units.

Imbibing the spirit, as I said, is a ritualized affair, almost a drinking game, freckled with frat boy machismo and cornball sacraments. The Times notes the dubious “vodka procedure,” which entails guzzling a nice big shot, neat, of course. It continues: “Prepare a forkful of food or chunk of bread. Inhale and exhale quickly, bringing the food to your nose. Breathe in and tip the vodka down your throat. Now breathe out again, and eat your food.”


I don’t think so. That sounds a bit like yoga for alkies. Can’t I just order a vodka tonic, a Cape Cod, a, huh-hum, White Russian, vodka martini, or something divine and aquamarine, conjured magic-potion-like by a multi-tentacled mixologist? Of course I can. And I will.

But I also want Russia’s traditional, unalloyed vodka experience. I’ll do a shot or two, hopefully with guys who don’t whoop a lot or slam their glasses down on the table and beat their chests. I can’t speak a lick of Russian, so who knows what kind of rigamarole I might find myself.

I’ll just say this: Temperance is golden, abstinence is mournful, more than five shots is suicidal, and eating herring with your vodka is, plain and simple, foolhardy. Na zdorovie!

Sharing rides, sharing lives

On a recent hot Monday, I bought a big bottle of Dewar’s White Label Scotch. The home supply was running low. It was dire.

I tapped the Lyft app for a ride and soon enough the usual dark, Japanese-made sedan pulled up. The driver was a late-middle-aged guy, tan with a ball cap and a festive tropical shirt from the Jimmy Buffett line. I climbed in back and set the heavy bottle on the floor. It made a gurgly thunk.

We drove in becalmed silence.


As I opened the door to get out, the driver turned and said, “What do you have there?” I hoisted the bottle so he could see the label. He frowned, then he took the bottle and read the label more closely as if he couldn’t believe his eyes.

“Ack. Dewar’s. Need the good stuff. Need Glenlivet.”

“You’re right, that is the good stuff. I save that for special occasions.”

“Special occasions? I only drink Glenlivet,” he grumbled. “Stopped drinking Dewar’s years ago.”

“Or there’s Laphroaig,” I said, trying to sound whisky-literate, refined, like I clearly knew Dewar’s was rotgut.

“This isn’t even Scotch,” he said, grimacing. “It’s blended, not single malt.”

I told him I knew that it was blended and hinted that with this 1.75 liter bottle, I was getting more bang for my buck. That didn’t go over well with the purist. He scowled.

I wanted to read him the encouraging Dewar’s description: “Up to 40 of the finest malt and grain whiskies are blended together in perfect harmony … Notes of Scottish heather and honey linger on the finish, with the faintest touch of smoke.”

Honey! Smoke! Harmony!

But surely it would sound to him like a paper-sack-sipper’s doggerel. This was outstanding. My Lyft driver was a whisky snob. I suddenly wanted to engage him in dialectics about beer — does he wrinkle his nose at IPAs as I do? — cocktails — would he ever drink one with cucumbers floating in it? — and wine — is vino in a box tantamount to ramen in a styrofoam cup?

I wondered about his life — what kind of music he listened to, if he bet on the horses, does he watch “America’s Got Talent.” Lyft and Uber drivers are fascinating. I talk to most of them, a lot about where they come from. I always tell Jamaican drivers that I visited Jamaica twice as a teenager. A lively gabfest, full of lush places and vivid anecdotes, invariably follows.

The ride sharing phenomenon is patently different from the standard taxi pickup. Lyft and Uber drivers pilot their own personal vehicles, so you never know what you’re going to get. Mostly you get mid-range four-doors — Toyotas, Hondas, Kias, Nissans, the occasional American model — and minivans with maw-like sliding doors. Only once did I get a truck, this towering Chevy beast. The driver told me that all his fares remark upon its hulking exoticism.


Because there are no physical taxi-like barriers between driver and passenger, the situation is literally open, which makes it socially conducive. We talk. We pry. We joke and laugh. We gripe about the weather and bad drivers. (It’s no “Taxicab Confessions.”) I always inquire about whatever keychain, tassel, necklace or other tchotchke is swinging from the rearview mirror. Stories abound. A sliver of a life resides in that little dangling dreamcatcher.

I try to compliment the driver’s choice of vehicle, especially if it’s extra nice or extra clean. And, with queer frequency, I tell them how pleasant their car smells, because, boy, they are besotted with nose-tickling air fresheners.

It’s a human thing, and the encounters, spanning many cities, are kaleidoscopic. The garrulous, too-much-information pot dealer; the beaming student who has by chance picked me up a few times and now calls me Mr. Chris; the yoga-psychic who insisted I write down my number so she could get my business; the Paris drivers who talked jazz and Trump and practiced their English; and the countless immigrants — so many Haitians! — from Boston to London, whose stories of their former homes and their new home are wondrous and heartening.

Expansive chatting was not to be on this ride. My Lyft driver was a taciturn man. Strictly Scotch. Strictly my Scotch.

As I left I took my bottle and I thanked him with sincerity for the lift. (I went on to award him a five-star rating.) Kindly, he thanked me back.

“Enjoy your drink,” he said. “You’re going to get a hangover.”

Drinking and striving

A Cucumber Rickey? That’s a thing?

It is a thing, evidently, an alcoholic thing, a thing that tastes like a wonderful thing.

I recently discovered the Cucumber Rickey (yes, I now know the drink’s been around since Tutankhamun) at the Montreal bar La Distillerie, a packed, ultra-trendy but relievedly casual spot that specializes in inspired, palate-thrilling cocktails without the pretense and rigamarole of highfalutin mixology, and does so at gulpingly cheap prices. My Cucumber Rickey — Bombay Sapphire gin, a truckload of fresh cucumbers, lime juice, simple syrup, and orange and mandarin bitters — was $7.50 in U.S dollars. Another, please.


Gin, cukes, paradise.

A poor specimen of  a cocktail connoisseur — a kicky gin and tonic does me fine — I’m still keenly curious about and eager to try new alcoholic concoctions. I regret I didn’t have time to sample more from La Distellirie’s festive menu, which boasts 27 specialty drinks, though I did try the toothsome Mohawk — Bombay Sapphire gin, peach purée, lemon juice, elderflower cordial, homemade jasmine tea syrup, soda water — a fragrant sweet and sour pleasure. (What in the hell is elderflower cordial?)

That menu is something else, a disarming, user-friendly catalog tailored to individual thirsts. For instance, if you’re in the mood for a “Herbal, Fresh, Refreshing” drink you can choose from four cocktails, including the ubiquitous Mojito, as well as my dear Cucumber Rickey and Mohawk.


the Mohawk — sweet, sour, sublime

If you require a “Robust-Intense Powerful Concentrated” drink, select from the Mad Man, Rollercoaster and three others. A quartet of neon-tinged beverages with long French names are located in the “Accessible, Delicate, Light-Soft” category. And so on. There are six categories total.

La Distellirie has three locations in Montreal. I was at the smallest and most popular spot — got there early, beat the crush — in the city’s Latin Quarter (make that Quartier-Latin) on Rue Ontario East. Two doors down from La Distillerie is Pub Quartier-Latin, a ridiculously friendly, semi-dive bar, with a cheery staff, cheap drinks, heaping greasy food and reliable WiFi. I hung out there a lot, writing on my laptop and sipping passable gin and tonics.

My drinking preferences have evolved over time. Fifteen years ago I’d keep a 12-pack of Rolling Rock in my fridge and stock no distilled spirits. A few years later I always had cheap Yellowtail merlot on hand, but still no hard booze, which I drank almost entirely at bars (mostly, blush, vodka cranberries). My beer and wine period seems to have lasted forever, and my liquor sophistication remained downright uncivilized.


Where zesty cocktails are found in Montreal’s Latin Quarter.

Until, at last, my brother introduced me to the nuanced grandeur of Scotch — the peat, smoke, vanilla, grass, fruit, even hay — all those swirling notes that begin in the nostrils and finish in a slightly seared gullet. He enlightened me by pouring The Glenlivet, Laphroaig and Talisker, single malts reserved for special occasions. (Our everyday Scotch is the smooth, blended, wholly unpretentious Dewar’s White Label.)

We sample gins for the best G&T’s, as we call them, and have graduated from Schweppes to Fever-Tree premium tonic. Our favorite gin to date: The Botanist. Least favorite: New Amsterdam. (Only later did we learn it was distilled in Modesto, Calif., explaining scads.) We quickly realized that Gordon’s London Dry beats out Bombay Sapphire in taste and price.

We make easy Scotch and sodas, the occasional Cape Cod, and try out new ryes and bourbons, Woodford Reserve being a standout.


My brother’s dreaded Negroni.

As I said before, I’m a cocktail dilettante. My brother’s the aspiring mixologist, who, like a driven chef, derives myriad satisfactions from confecting a complex libation, step by step, following a strict recipe. He’s especially partial to Old Fashioneds and the bitter, face-scrunching Negroni, which offers a delightful finish of ear wax.

When done creating, he always clinks glasses and often smacks his lips after the first sip of success.

He’s particular about his brands and demands his ice cubes just so. This self-anointed beverage snob, a real liquid dandy, won’t drink at any bar that sprays its tonic from a push-button nozzle, or soda gun. That’s commitment.

I don’t care if they fire my tonic out of a gun. Yet I do crave quality, like the tasty bracers at La Distellerie, which take skill and a little heart. I make modest drinks as best I can — my G&Ts, when I slice up some fresh fruit, are really not bad — and I like to think I could pull off my own Mohawk or Cucumber Rickey. All that, even if I do pour my wine from a cardboard box.