I’m going to tell you a secret.
I used to be terrified of eating alone. So terrified that I absolutely wouldn’t do it. In fact, I once spent an entire college May term eating meals alone in my dorm room. All of my suite-mates and best friends traveled to New York City and left me solo. The thought of walking into a cafeteria looking for somewhere to sit by myself made me panic so badly I just couldn’t do it.
Now, I enjoy dining and traveling solo from time to time. It took me a while to get here, though. Walking into a party, solo, though; I’d rather die.
Last week I felt like treating myself on one of my days off. So, I did. I was in the mood for another miniature road trip. This time I headed to Edwardsville, Illinois to eat lunch at Cleveland-Heath.
Edwardsville is home to Southern Illinois University and located about 40-minutes from our home. I’ve seen and heard many good things about Jennifer Cleveland and Eric Heath’s restaurant since moving to St. Louis. Eric Heath was nominated as a 2016 James Beard semi-finalist for the Midwest region.
This past year, I read Ellen Stimson’s memoir Mud Season about her experiences moving from St. Louis to rural Vermont. At one point, she lived in Edwardsville, describing it as cozy. She painted a picture I felt very curious to see, of suppers on her front porch with a big swing, community band concerts, and a lake in the middle of a city park.
The drive into Edwardsville was indeed picturesque. Once I passed the big sign for Southern Illinois University, I drove along a little residential road towards the main street. Each side was lined with mature trees and grand, old houses. I felt like I was driving through a Norman Rockwell painting. I paused for a moment at this chapel set amidst the rolling hills of Woodlawn Cemetery.
Cleveland-Heath is located at the corner of a busy Main Street intersection. Despite the hustle and bustle, I had no problem finding street parking. The restaurant was calm when I arrived for an early lunch. I chose a seat at the bar where I was warmly greeted and provided with a menu.
I ordered plenty of food with the intention of taking some home for Jake to try. The bartender sold me on one of the daily specials, a banh mi-inspired sandwich. He sold me with the mention of a liver pate. I added an order of salt and pepper chicken wings.
In my mind, I had envisioned the type of salt and pepper foods we’ve found at Chinese restaurants; where meat or seafood is fried in some sort of crispy crunchy coating seasoned with salt, chili peppers, garlic, and other seasonings I can’t identify but crave. These salt and pepper wings were fried until crispy and literally seasoned with salt and black pepper. Not quite what I had imagined, but cooked very well.
The skin was shatteringly crisp while the meat remained moist. Next time I’d order a hot sauced version. The wings still satisfied and the blue cheese dressing tasted homemade. I can sniff out the stuff that comes in big jars in a second. This was not it and I took the rest home.
The pate and pork sandwich also tasted delicious. It really did. The toasted bread made the sandwich richer than a traditional banh mi, but included the right amount of pickled veggies, cilantro, and shaved jalapeno to balance everything out.
I opted for a side salad instead of fries, which arrived delightfully composed, dressed, and seasoned. The chef speckled the greens with shaved radish and some kind of crunchy, toasted bits.
Overall, a memorably good meal in a hospitable atmosphere.
When I home, I saw my friend @SocialSara612’s reply to my tweet that I was snarfing chicken wings, solo, at a bar. She said something along the lines of how I was living my best life. I chuckled. Because she might be kind of right.
She’s right, you are living your best life.
And I also cringed at eating alone in college. I came to Wartburg as a transfer from a junior college, so it felt like everyone already had their crowds by the time I arrived. If my roommates weren’t eating with me, I would grab something to-go to eat in my room. Fast forward almost 10 years, and I think it’s a delightful treat to eat alone!
I am smiling because I don’t feel so alone doing that! That would be challenging to transfer as a junior. I wish we were friends back then.
Continually eating alone while on the road gets to be somewhat of a pain after awhile – I can certainly attest to that. However, there seems to be more and more of us out there. Within a two year period (2012-2014) Open Table found that 62% more people were dining out alone. Restaurants are getting more in tune with the solo diner and society isn’t quite singling us out as “divorced losers” or “social idiots” as one sits at a table for two having a nice meal. I will admit that I tend to dine at the bar (if one’s available) than the dining room at most places, mainly for the social interactions. But most of the time I keep to myself, eat my dinner, have a couple three drinks and head out.
I can see how that could become a pain after a while. Interesting to know there’s a lot of solo diners. There should be no shame in that!
I often eat lunch alone in various local eateries. That’s what books are for.