I have never eaten in a restaurant alone. I’ve eaten in food courts, hospital cafeterias, and in airports without a companion. The sense you’re an oddball simply isn’t present as you munch on a Polish dog at Midway in Chicago. Nearly everyone is in the same boat—in transit and hungrier for something more than a sample-sized granola bar they give out on planes.
Self-consciousness has always kept me from walking into a restaurant solo. I like to share meals. I don’t like to be conspicuous. Party of one isn’t something I’ve ever wanted join. But I’ve been wanting to step out of my comfort zone. One of my simple goals for this year was to eat in a real restaurant alone.
Several nights ago, something deeply odd happened to me. I was in downtown Denver for about an hour, parking in an unfamiliar garage. As I exited, I realized I was totally turned around and heading in the wrong direction. It was night, so I couldn’t see the mountains to guide me home. Finally, I found myself on a familiar and very busy street so I joined the steady stream of traffic. I floated past the state capitol building, the city and county building—and the road I needed to merge onto that would take me to the interstate. I’d have to take the long way home. I was hungry. I’d grab something along the way.
As I drove, I felt a strange nudge. Go to Casa Bonita. If you don’t know Denver, you may not realize how insane this seems. Casa Bonita is an elaborate Mexican restaurant set up like a Mexican coastal village. It seats thousands in a network of limestone caves, faux mine shafts, Spanish Colonial palaces, and rocky ocean cliffs. There are divers, mariachis, puppet shows, and very iffy food. Their sopapillas are divine, however. It’s the kind of place Denverites take their out-of-town guests. It was featured in an episode of South Park. Everything about it screams fiesta.
Nobody eats there alone. Nobody. I launched into an epic debate with myself.
I laughed off the nudge. It was too crazy. I could finally eat alone! I argued back. If I’m going to do it, I’ll do it big. I will write about eating alone at a place like Casa Bonita! What is it like? Where do they seat a solo diner? Will they bring an entire platter of sopapillas when I raise the flag? I think that last part is what sold me. Again: Best sopapillas in the entire world.
As I drove, I could see the tower jutting into the night sky. Casa Bonita is located in the corner of a very humble strip mall. The exterior doesn’t reveal what lurks behind the enormous wooden double doors. During the day, it’s a soft pink with elaborate touches of gold trim. At night, it’s beautiful, often strung with lights. In warm weather seasons, a fountain cascades directly in front. I turned into the parking lot and circled a few times before finding a close spot. I was on the verge of changing my mind. Maybe I’d go take a few photos of the tower and fountain? I could still leave.
But I heard it again. No, eat.
I snorted at myself as I walked to the entrance. I snapped a few photos with my phone. Gosh, it was pretty. Maybe I’d just go inside the lobby? I pulled open a door and was hit with the distinctive Casa Bonita smell: Chlorine and honey. Chlorine for the cliff diving pool, honey for the sopapillas. If you’ve come this far…
I began to mentally write my post about eating alone. I felt incredibly self-conscious as I made my way to the front of the line where you order food. I was so nervous, I forgot about looking at the menu. When the clerk asked what I wanted, I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head: The all-you-can-eat beef platter. It comes with two beef enchiladas, one cheese, beans, rice, and a beef hardshell taco—significantly more food than my nervous stomach wanted to eat. He handed a printed ticket to me to take to the next station where plates of food pop out of the kitchen and down a tiled incline. I’d claim my platter, claim my water, and then I’d be seated by a host.
The other diners were in groups or pairs. I thought about pretending I was going to meet someone, like my life was a bad sitcom, but then I wouldn’t have an authentic eating alone experience. I needed to own it. Be brave! I exhorted myself. I grabbed a tray and a set of flatware wrapped in a cloth napkin. I put my printout on the tray and took a photo. Proof: Party of One.
I thought I should text my husband about my little adventure. I’d be later than anticipated. I typed out my message and included a photo of the tower, which he’d easily recognize. I hit send. Nothing happened. It wouldn’t send. I kept getting the red exclamation mark failure error on my phone. I knew I had used my phone at Casa Bonita before. Why wasn’t it working?
That’s when I noticed the woman behind me in line. She was using a phone and didn’t seem to be having any problem. “Do you have service in here?” I asked, motioning to her phone. She said she did. Verizon. Oh, I have AT&T. Figures. I thought that would be the end of it.
“We’re from Iowa and don’t have a good connection where we live.” I nodded. It wasn’t a surprise to meet someone from another state at Casa Bonita. I assumed they were simply visiting, maybe on a little vacation. I noticed the woman was with a young teen girl.
She continued, “We’re here to see Dr. ___ at Swedish. My daughter has a tumor growing in her cheek and up into her face. He may be able to help. He does an experimental treatment using ethanol. She’s having surgery on Monday.” I was surprised she told me so much, but it seemed to be a relief for her to talk about it. Being in a city, far from home, has to be a lonely road—especially when your one companion, your daughter, is facing such an uncertain future.
We continued to chat as we waiting for our food to unceremoniously slide down the chute. Funny, we all ordered the same beef platter. I went ahead to the drink station, where a teen boy poured my water and asked for my ticket. He was going to seat me. Just you? he asked. Yes, but hold on.
Once again, I was compelled to step out of my comfort zone. I took a little notebook out of my bag and scribbled down my name and email address. I walked back to where they stood waiting for a second beef platter and handed the paper to the mom. I said I imagined how difficult it must be to be in town not knowing a soul. If they needed anything during their stay, they could email. She mentioned they had family up in Steamboat (a four-hour drive) and friends in Sterling, but nobody in town. It didn’t feel odd giving a total stranger my information.
The teen boy was waiting. Now, all three of us followed him. Do you want to sit together? he asked. I turned to see what she thought, but before I could ask she wondered if I wanted to join them. I did.
We were taken to a table for six. The server situated us with our chips and salsa and we sat to eat. If there’s anything more awkward than eating alone, it’s eating with total strangers—but it didn’t feel that way. At least for me. I can’t speak for them. It was only once we were seated that we gave each other our names. Gretchen. Mom Shelly. Daughter Kiera. She’s 13.
During the next hour, I heard the story of the daughter’s diagnosis. She’s seen countless doctors, had numerous diagnoses, travelled to several cities for treatment. I was thoroughly impressed with both of them. Kiera seemed mature beyond her years and Shelly seemed tired but fiercely proud of her daughter and hopeful for the future. They weren’t sad or melancholy, though. They laughed and talked about all the things they were going to do during the weekend. A first time skiing, going to Colorado Springs. They told me about how much they loved Boston, too, and how they’d never have seen that city if it wasn’t for Kiera’s tumor. It brought them closer together. It enabled them to do things they’d never normally do.
And with every bite of my iffy beef platter, I sank deeper into the realization that it was no accident my attempt to eat alone was turned inside out and upside down. Sopapillas arrived at the end of our meal. They were flat. Normally, they’re puffy and hot from a deep-fried oil bath. You tear open a corner and pour honey inside. That night, I ripped open my sopapilla and made my own little pocket for honey. It was still delicious. I had another and looked around. A girl dove off the jagged cliff face and into the green lit pool. All around us, activity bustled. What would it have been like to have eaten alone that night?
I never want to know.
Today, Shelly sits in a hospital waiting room as her daughter undergoes a surgery that will hopefully change her life. Thankfully, her friend from Sterling will sit with her so she doesn’t have to be alone. I’m there all day with her in spirit, wishing my new friends all the best and thanking God for giving me an extraordinary reward for listening to nudges and being slightly brave. I don’t know what brave is, I learned. It’s not eating alone in a gaudy restaurant.
It’s doing life together, no matter what comes. There is nothing more brave.
Shelly and Kiera shared her Caringbridge page. Here is the link. I asked permission to write about them and the experience. Please join me in keeping both of them, and their family back home in Iowa, in your prayers and thoughts.