Restaurants

Eating solo just became the new food trend.
Image: Jaimie gusman

Table For One, Please?

What we learn from eating alone

Watch her. The woman at the next table. In her 20s, maybe late 20s. Yellow and purple shorts, skin-tone tank top, worn-out rainbows. Pretty normal looking, with wavy hair in a ponytail. She’s reading a magazine through her thick-rimmed glasses. She’s no more or less beautiful than anyone else at Maharani on this evening. So why’s she dining alone?

It’s common to fear occupying a table by yourself. My friend who is traveling through Europe by herself recently wrote on her blog, “Everyday Things for the First Time,” “It’s hard when you’re on your own and a bit lonely and you’re floundering . . . it’s hard not to fall in love with your food.”

What is the connection between loneliness and food?

Cafe Maharani

“So this is where it all begins,” I told myself over a piping hot plate of eggplant tikka korma ($12.99) and two extra-large half-moon-shaped pieces of garlic naan ($3.99) at Cafe Maharani. I sat, contentedly eating this coconut delight with large pieces of deep-fried eggplant and roasted vegetables. I usually indulge in the fish masala: two large pieces of salmon in an addictive creamy tomato sauce.

The assignment was to face the fear of dining alone. So where’s the epiphany? The host didn’t treat me oddly or hide me next to the kitchen. I sat by a front window so everyone who walked by could see that I was hungry, alone and not afraid to show it. The busboy was attentive, but not overly so. The waiter took my order promptly and checked to see if everything was tasty. And it was.

The café is a sibling-run operation–jointly by three brothers and a sister. Even with super-spiced dishes, they don’t skimp on quality: fresh, properly cooked vegetables, crispy-in-the-right-place flatbread. I also love that they welcome BYOB. While sharing a bottle of wine with my beau is great, sipping a pale ale at a table for one has its perks, too.

Cafe Maharani, 2509 S. King St., 951-7447

Jimbo

The owner of Jimbo is someone who makes you feel good about eating local. I ordered the nabeyaki, one of the more expensive udon items ($13.90), which includes shiitake mushrooms, fishcake, carrots, scallions, egg, snow peas, bok choy and famously fresh udon noodles.

Owner Jim Motojim explained the process of making the perfect broth. He uses an MSG-free fish base (a rarity) and, he said, as it simmers, you must now allow it to bubble, or it will be bitter. There are actually three levels of thickness for different dishes. He emphasizes that he wants his customers to feel good after they eat at Jimbo. No wonder I felt so light–even after finishing the tempura shrimp and eggplant that came with my bowl of steamy soup. The waitress even offered me extra broth. I accepted, and Jim proved to be such a nice guy that I stayed and talked story with him for over an hour about how to correctly eat noodles (slurping is a must), GMO foods, the high cost of produce, the difficulties of 18 years in the restaurant business in Hawaii. . . . So even though I set off to Jimbo to eat alone, I ended up making a friend and can highly recommend the delicious hot or cold udon dishes ($7.50–$14.90), donburi ($9.90–$13.50), yaki udon ($10.50–$10.90) and bacon fried rice ($6.40).

Jimbo, 1936 S. King St. #103, 947-2211

Jawaiian Irie Jerk

I got to Jerk early–early bird special early, 5pm. I had made a reservation for one, and when I arrived, the waitress seemed as though she’d been waiting for me. I sat down in front of a gorgeous painting, which I later found out was one of chef Cassie’s creations. I ordered a pineapple ginger brew (a non-alcoholic drink made from the skin of local pineapple, $2.95) and, after much back and forth, decided on the jerk pork ($12.95). When I asked the waitress what kind of people she sees here, she says lots of couples, single people dining with their books and groups that come to listen to the steel drums on the weekends.

Before my food arrived (it took only about six minutes), I was served complimentary bread and spiced butter. Cassie’s jerk pork is juicy and fatty enough that you won’t need a knife and an earthy barbecue flavor that doesn’t overpower the natural taste of the meat. The stew served with the dish was a concoction of green and red peppers, potato, kubocha pumpkin and onions in a coconut curry.

Chef Cassie ended up in Hawaii when the MS Patriot cruise ship, where he used to work, went bankrupt after 9/11. He first operated a food truck and only recently opened this sit-down eatery. The romantic setting (candles and low lighting) can make you feel lonely, but the people and the food are a source of comfort.

Jawaiian Irie Jerk 1137 11th Ave., 388-2917

Maile’s Thai Bistro

“It’s just me,” I said to the hostess. Looking around, I knew I wouldn’t have to fight for a table for one: full bar, vacant tables. She sat me at a two-top facing the bar; I asked for the happy hour drink menu I’d heard about and ordered vegetarian spring rolls ($6) and a glass of house red ($4.50). I’m psyched about wine on the cheap, and even more so because it was actually good. My waiter suggested chili sauce with my appetizer, which gave the other sweet peanut dipping sauce a kick. It’s served with fresh mint, lettuce, cucumber and a salad of shredded carrots and cabbage.

Waiting for the spicy basil noodle dish ($15.90), I asked the server if lots of tourists frequent Maile’s. I was surprised to hear that this three-year-old bistro has already made a name for itself in the Hawaii Kai Town Centre, not only with locals but also travelers, especially those from Japan and Canada. The owner, Maile, used to manage an Assaggio’s and broke away from her family’s restaurant endeavors to do her own thing. I like that.

Maile’s Thai Bistro, 333 Keahole St., 394-2488

Kuru Kuru Sushi

It’s 4:52pm, and I suddenly feel like an 85-year-old widow as I sit facing an equally lonesome sushi conveyor belt. I need some direction. The waitress tells me the donburi bowls are popular ($5.95), but after gazing over the pictorial menu, I decide on miso soup, ‘ahi poke, garlic ‘ahi, hamachi sushi and tempura pumpkin. This last stole the show with its crispy outside and sweet center. But eating at a place like this by yourself, with so many people around, makes you feel more alone. The guy next to me was plugged into his iPod, and the mother and daughter on my other side seemed to be talking in a secret code over plates of SPAM on rice. In about 40 minutes I had been seated, fed and cashed out. For $10.99, and with all that food, I feel bad complaining, but I was also too full and somewhat depressed.

What I do appreciate about Kuru Kuru is the hard work of the blue-shirted servers and the two owners who quickly prepare tons of dishes for the belt. Pretty impressive for people watching, but I prefer to eat my sushi in the shadows.

Kuru Kuru Sushi, Kahala Mall, 4211 Waialae Ave., 739-5878

Dining alone makes you more mindful of what’s going on around you: the people with whom you choose to interact, or not; the food and how good it is, or isn’t. And also, what’s going on within yourself.