solitary diners are a business opportunity

I am what is referred to as a business traveler. If I could make a livelihood staying at home I would. One of the downsides of traveling — other than taxi drivers, overcrowded airports, bell caps and shuttle buses — is having to dine alone.

Now I am not an especially handsome man. I’m not tall, distinguished or well dressed. But I am socialized to the point where I’ve acquired passable manners, such as chewing with my mouth closed and using a napkin instead of my sleeve. So why is it that from the moment I enter a restaurant alone until I finish dinner and shuffle slowly away, I’m treated like some pathetic excuse of a human being?

I’ll tell you what it is: It’s the phrase, “Party of one.” Like dominos on an incline, so goes my evening.

The experience begins with the hostess sizing me up as a social leper. “Oh... well... follow me.” Invariably, I’m seated at a table adjacent to the kitchen, a point farthest from the front entry. I’m certain they’d seat me in the men’s room if they thought they could get away with it. As a pariah, you’d think I’d be aware of that.

Next comes the twentysomething busser who whisks away the other place settings. It’s typically done so quickly that it must be meant to spare me embarrassment. The clincher is how the young person averts his eyes lest I see the kid’s obvious discomfort at the situation.

Next up in this Greek tragedy is the server, whom I presume has already sarcastically thanked the hostess for seating me in her station. I feel badly for the server having to take the time to tell me about the night’s specials. Clearly I’m no gourmand, or I wouldn’t be alone. Offering me the wine menu is an afterthought, something of a hollow gesture. Why would someone so obviously unworthy of companionship want to prolong the dining experience?

Moments after putting my fork down for the last time, the table is cleared of everything but the crumbs. It’s an amazing feat of prestidigitation. I’m awed by the lightning speed of this final act. The check is thrust my way, and I’m ushered out of the dining room stat. I can relate to how SARS victims must feel.

So let me get this straight: If I were to show up at a restaurant with a call girl draped on my arm, I’d be a most welcome guest. But if I arrive alone looking for a quiet meal in a strange town, I’m presumed communicable and socially undesirable?

Well, listen up. I habitually over-tip and rarely make a scene. Discriminating against us solitary diners is bad form. It should be seen as a business opportunity, not a liability. Just consider us half as demanding as a two-top.

We social outcasts thank you in advance.