Oh, the things I've witnessed, eating alone at the bar.
I once saw a man reading aloud from the Bible and sloppily drinking scotch. Another night, there was the young, tuxedo-clad fellow who tried not to damage his rental as he vomited. And among the many people I've seen conducting animated conversations with themselves, the one who stands out most in my memory is the guy who took a gun from his coat pocket, then sobbed hysterically. (Quite sensibly, the bartender took the weeping customer's gun away and then served him a Dr Pepper.)
At moments like these, I'm reminded that dining companionship is overrated.
I typically dine at a bar only when circumstance leaves me no choice, so sometimes I forget about the uncomplicated pleasures of the solo barroom meal. And one such enjoyment is that being on my own allows me to view these eccentric spectacles with complete detachment. I can simply turn discreetly away, return to my reading and eat a fry. It's like changing channels on a TV show: "Well, that's enough of that."
In a restaurant's dining room, each table is its own little stage, ready for scenes of hilarity or despondency, lust or loss. These performances have ways of reaching a broader audience, though. It's difficult to completely tune out the party at the next table when it's just inches away. Especially if the evening's script includes lines like, "He was very blunt about it. He said any drugstore carries the product over the counter. As if I'd go to Walgreens and have everyone see me buy it."
It's different at the bar, even when you're dining with someone. Grunting between bites is perfectly acceptable in this lateral arrangement, and the built-in voyeurism is welcome rather than intrusive.
A friend of mine, a chatty bon vivant, likes to engage strangers near him at the bar. "I like to create a convivial tone," he says, as though he were a character out of Dodsworth. Not me. I prefer a more disagreeable tone. Sure, I'll make small talk with the bartender until my plate arrives, but we both know that this is merely polite prologue, and we both want it that way. When my food comes, I bury my head in a newspaper or a magazine, savor my meal without having to share it, and keep an ear cocked for a little gossip.
Over the past couple of weeks, I set out to update my mental list of smart places to indulge this old practice. Here's what I found.
Midnight on a Tuesday, Harry's Bar & Tables
"We do a pretty good late-night dining business during the week," Sonia tells me as I sit down. She's a pretty bartender at Harry's Bar & Tables, the venerable brick saloon at the busy intersection of Pennsylvania and Westport Road. "There aren't that many places in this neighborhood where you can get a real meal after midnight."
She's right. The popular Westport Café & Bar, up the street, and its Italian sister, the Boot, both offer food until the kitchen shuts down at 1 a.m., but Harry's keeps its cooks up an hour longer, with a limited but enticing selection of dishes until 2.
Despite its crisp linen napkins and classy look, Harry's isn't the kind of bar — at least at this hour — where you'll nose quietly into your worn copy of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables while you nibble on sautéed shrimp and sip a Sazerac. The dining room and the bar at Harry's are one, and it can get raucous even when the space is less than half-full. But this is still the most dignified place in Westport for a sit-down supper after most of the other restaurants — and many of the bars — have closed for the night. And it's an ideal place to eavesdrop on the occupants of nearby bar stools who really should be forced to listen to their own dizzy conversations in the brutal light of day.
"Do you like to travel?" the stylish blonde asks the preppy young man sitting next to her. "I love adventure!" And before he can answer, she's talking about Swiss Miss cocoa mix.
That's my cue to focus on the midnight supper in front of me: a half-order of the hummus duo — one a traditional chickpea, the other a red-pepper variety — served with a generous stack of warm pita slices. The creamy hummus comes dotted with a couple of salty Kalamata olives and three soft, buttery cloves of roasted garlic, as well as a sprinkling of feta cheese and a spoonful of chopped tomato.
From my vantage at the center of the bar, I can see a cook working in the tiny kitchen. I seem to be the only one eating at this hour, but Sonia and the other bartender, Jeremy, assure me that 1 a.m. always brings another wave of hungry prowlers.
I eat too much hummus and finish only one of my spicy Cajun soft tacos. Jeremy boxes up my leftovers, and I take a big gulp of tonic water while settling my bill. The two attractive young women now to my right have very large martinis in front of them. They speak very little to each other and not at all to me — highly appropriate behavior.
At that hour, there's often nothing left to say.
4:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Majestic Restaurant
Ever since my drinking days ended, I've found that pretty much any variation on the happy-hour concept that doesn't include food is an incredible waste of time. (I took the opposite stance during my boozy years, ignoring countless free buffets when local bars and restaurants offered such enticements.) No, the serenity of sobriety means that today I disregard the sparkle of track lighting on bottle glass but fondle a printed happy-hour menu with the same reverence I might pay the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The four-hour special at the Majestic's grand old bar isn't sacred, but it allows me to eat well, and cheaply, from 2 to 6 p.m. And if I did drink, I'd have a friend in this bar's Sean Moriarty, a master mixologist who's also a charming old-school bartender, straight out of a William Saroyan play.
The special is good enough that I've brought my friend Carol, who pointedly pays no attention to a chubby insurance salesman sitting on her other side. He's trying to flirt. We're trying to taste a few of the $5 appetizers, including ground-lamb sliders and sassy little fried risotto balls stuffed with cheddar. We order a crabby crab cake that's big enough to share and comes with "Majestic fries," deep-fried hunks of potato as large as fresh-hewn wood shards.
According to Moriarty, Friday is the busiest happy hour here. It's a collision of downtown's after-work crowd and its before-theater set, and he says it makes this tiled room happily noisy. I'll stick to Wednesday afternoon.
9:30 a.m. Thursday, 12 Baltimore Café
In the historic Hotel Phillips, the subterranean dining room, formerly known as the Sir Loin Room, Walt Bodine's Steakhouse, and Platters, is still there but no longer used as a restaurant. The street-level bar now does double duty as both saloon and dining room, and it's called the 12 Baltimore Café.
It's a sleek, tasteful space, and the black-granite-topped bar is a solid spot for enjoying a first-rate, not outrageously expensive breakfast, served graciously and without commotion. This is a hangover-friendly room, with no clattering plates or jarring piped-in music or parade of latte-ordering commuters. Even the wall-mounted TV screens are muted, so you can comfortably peruse a morning newspaper (several national editions are complimentary to diners) without having to hear well-coifed cable talkers.
The morning I stop in, the TV on one side of the bar is tuned to CNBC, and another is set on Fox News. I look up from my eggs Benedict and see a bronzed, toothy Tucker Carlson. Even absent his voice, I shudder.
Kallen, the bartender, senses my dread. "Would you like me to switch the channel?" he asks. I tell him it's OK. I just won't look up again. He pours me more of 12 Baltimore's fine, robust coffee.
I've come for the starches. There are five different kinds of pancakes here, including a potato pancake (this is one of the few restaurants in town to serve a pretty decent latke), and three different sizes of biscuits and gravy (hefty, average or, for $3, "tiny").
I ask for tiny, but what comes out isn't so little: a doughy biscuit, split open and blanketed with a thick sausage gravy, that won't go down in a few bites. My eggs Benedict had also been saucy, a Hollandaise drench so vibrantly yellow that I thought for a moment it might be lemon curd.
This is the quietest bar meal of my venture, and Kallen tells me that it's usually this way here unless there's a convention in town. I tell him that this is just the way I like it. The best time to be in a bar — any bar — is when it seems to be all yours.