Check, Please!

I didn’t join a book club because I love to read, although I do. I joined because I love to eat. The problem is I don’t like to eat alone in public.

I don’t mean fast food restaurants like Wendy’s and McDonald’s, or other chains like Pret and Au Bon Pain. You’ll catch me eating at those places if I’m trying to kill time for something else, like a movie. In that case, I’d read a book or magazine to escape the fact that I’m eating alone. Other than that, I grab my food to go. I’m talking about not liking to eat alone at restaurants with real silverware, white tablecloths and cloth napkins, or, napkins that don’t come out of a dispenser for anyone to grab willy nilly.

There’s no place like home, but sometimes I don’t want to be there. Even before I moved to New York, I was in the habit of going places alone. I think I’ve attended more movies, concerts, comedy shows, plays and musicals solo than with another person. Of course I’d rather have company, but it doesn’t always work out that way. So I go alone.

Except restaurants.

There’s something about eating alone in a restaurant that magnifies my loneliness, solo-ness and lack of at least one good deep-rooted I-go-in-your-refrigerator-without-asking relationship—friendship or romantic. (I have that in Boston.) The few times I’ve tried to eat alone ended with me trying to swallow a lump in my throat and willing the tears not to drop from my bottom lashes.

I regularly read articles, receive Groupon, Living Social and TravelZoo restaurant deals and learn about restaurants from other people. I make a note somewhere, text or email the restaurant to myself, or follow it on Facebook and Instagram. These serve as a constant reminder (and torture) of what seems just out of reach. Temporarily.

As soon as an opportunity presents itself for me to check out a restaurant with company, I pounce. When an unimaginative guy asks me where I want to go for our first date, I pluck a name from my “To Do”list. I can’t remember my meal the first time at SoCo (check) on Myrtle Ave. in Brooklyn, but the sangria was excellent. I told another guy I wanted to meet at a place in Williamsburg. Two stops away on the subway, I received a text from him requesting we reschedule our date. I never saw him, and I have yet to try Pies ‘n’ Thighs.

For months, I followed Mango Seed, also in Brooklyn, on Instagram after I saw several pictures of savory meals and drinks posted by radio personality Angela Yee from Power 105’s The Breakfast Club. Thanks to her and the restaurant’s posts I could not wait for my chance to check it out. It finally happened when my cousin Tania visited for a concert at Barclay’s Center the Friday before Valentine’s Day.

In addition to suggesting Mango Seed, I threw out names of restaurants I had already visited, like Dinosaur BBQ and Pink Teacup. She trusted me after successful visits to Peaches Hothouse (check), Peaches (check), and Amy Ruth’s (check). She looked up menus and chose Mango Seed. After enjoying my delicious Mango Pico De Gallo Jerk Salmon and sampling Tania’s falling-off-the-bone braised oxtail, I wanted to kiss Tania, our waitress and the hostess. Check Mango Seed off the list.

I literally licked my fingers after eating at Sweet Chick on Bedford Ave., in where else? Brooklyn. It had been on my radar for a while, but it never worked out for me to go. One of the reasons being it’s off the L train. I hate that line.

My friend Shavone, who left New York to move back to Florida, was back in town for business and was having dinner with a former co-worker, Leia, at Sweet Chick. We had yet to solidify our own plans, so I invited myself.

I looked up the menu. I was in week three or four of the six-week Shred diet that I was doing with Tania back home in Massachusetts (our second time), but I ordered the Sweet Chick Bucket with three pieces of chicken with collard slaw and a buttermilk biscuit. I split mac and cheese with the girls. To hell with the diet. I wasn’t going to drink water in a feigned attempt to save calories. I was intrigued by Purple Drank’s ingredients of gin, lemon, lime, simple syrup, egg white and Welch’s grape soda.

Membership in my first New York book club was short-lived. The restaurant choices were mostly in Long Island. One of the members was the friend of my cousin’s girlfriend. Knowing I didn’t have a car, she always offered me a ride to and from the meetings. Being the independent person I am, I hated relying on another person, and worse, accepting the favor each month. The restaurant choices were good, but not enough to swallow my pride.

I found Uptown Girl’s Harlem Book Club on meetup.com after the other Meetup book club I joined dissolved. The first meeting I attended was the Harlem Book Festival. Somehow I was the only member to connect with the organizer, Christina, there with her three children and husband. We walked around the festival, bought books, spoke with authors, signed up for a few newsletters then deliberated on where we’d go to eat. Check Sylvia’s off my list.

I was drawn to Uptown Girl’s Harlem Book Club not only because of past book selections, some of which I’d read or wanted to read, but also because of past restaurants. The club meets throughout Manhattan, not just Harlem. Despite what I’ve written here, most of the restaurants I’ve been to are in Manhattan because it’s more convenient when going out with co-workers and friends from different boroughs after work. We tend to frequent the same spots, and in the case of co-workers, it’s usually for drinks. I order food.

Once a month on a Sunday afternoon, I meet with like-minded people to discuss our shared passion of reading while enjoying delicious food and drinks. Seeing the faces of regular attendees helps me deal with the anxiety of meeting new members. I look forward to seeing these ladies and get sad when scheduling prevents me from attending. I showed up without finishing the book only once, nevertheless enjoyed my smoked salmon with horseradish, crème fraiche and lemon at ABC Kitchen. We were joined by James Hannaham, the author of Delicious Foods, and he had the same.

One of the most memorable book club restaurants was The Shrine World Music Venue with its live band and walls and ceiling plastered with real album covers. Michael Jackson’s white suit on the cover of Thriller was easily recognizable. I had the Harlem Fish, a well-seasoned grilled Tilapia with salad. Second favorite was Lips, where the servers are drag queens, some of whom lip synced and danced on the small stage.

The food was great at Chocolat Restaurant Lounge (check), Southern Hospitality (check) and Please Don’t Tell. I had been to Neely’s Barbecue Parlor (check) before and after our meeting to discuss Terry McMillan’s Who Asked You? and posted a comment to the club lamenting that it was closing and I’d no longer get to enjoy the deviled eggs and thick, maple bacon appetizer.

This month the club meets at Corner Social in Harlem to discuss Issa Rae’s The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Twenty people have RSVP’d, though on the day of it will probably be less. I’ve already perused the menu.

*Illustration by Nicole Rifkin originally appeared in The New Yorker

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