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.