I was eating a rib eye at Ruth’s Chris Steak House when I realized that the staff was paying me a lot of attention. I was with a man whom I’ll call Sam and we were in Buckhead, a wealthy enclave of north metro Atlanta. We were most definitely an uncommon pair. These days I am often assumed to be nineteen years old despite being near twice that age, so back then, at barely thirty, I’m sure folks assumed me to be quite young. He was white, middle-aged, balding. He was a fuddy-duddy. You know what I mean. I wore chunky, heeled sandals and above-the-knee sundresses; bartenders reviewing my ID often commented on the juxtaposition of my face and my birth year (Wow, good for you). Sam and I weren’t on a date. But we were dining together, and maybe, that was curious enough to raise eyebrows.
Sam had said hello to me one night while I was dining alone at another Atlanta restaurant bar. We struck up a conversation. He worked in commercial construction—“bo-ring” he said, when I asked him about it, with an air of finality. I would spend many hours with Sam in the months to come, but I never understood what he actually did to make money. He traveled constantly and was partly responsible for developing relationships between his firm and Korean and Chinese business partners. His company developed some of the largest industrial facilities in the southeast, which I eventually gleaned from looking up the URL in his work email.
When Sam traveled to Atlanta he was in work mode, so he’d be in one meeting after another. Dinner was his chosen respite from troves of paperwork, shiny office buildings, constant client handling, and sitting around tables looking at guys just like him. On the night we met at the bar, our conversation was centered on the food. I don’t remember what we ate in our respective meals, but I remember him being genuinely intrigued by my then-budding knowledge of the New American approach to Southern dining—illustrated by chefs who braised pork belly, decorated little gem lettuces with nasturtium leaves, and served chilled corn soup doused with buttermilk puree. More broadly, I was beginning to understand the range of fine dining offerings available throughout the city and how different chefs were in conversation with one another. I quickly identified Sam as the type of business traveler who’d make his way to yet another chain, rather than venture to a newly opened restaurant or to a place serving a cuisine with which he was less familiar. But he pushed past his comfort zone that night, and he was glad, but overwhelmed. The cocktails included ingredients like chartreuse; the desserts looked like abstract art. He didn’t want to try that hard to understand a meal, but he seemed conflicted about it—like the zeitgeist was passing him by. I chided him for being so well traveled, seemingly well off, yet somewhat closed-minded in his pursuit of good food. “Bo-ring!” I prodded him. He laughed. Then he floated the idea of grabbing a drink, dinner maybe, next time he was in town. He wanted to see what he’d been missing, maybe I could sort of be his guide? I said, yeah, sure. Whatever. It’s long been a point of pride that I have dear friends from varied backgrounds and generations. Why couldn’t Sam become one too? We exchanged business cards.
Over the next few months, Sam would send an email when he was in town. “Pick the place!” he’d write. And I’d pick a place and we’d meet at the bar and have dinner. Although I dined out with friends regularly, more often than not I rolled solo in those days. There was so much to explore, and I wasn’t patient enough to coordinate schedules and try something new with a group. Atlanta’s cocktail culture was hitting its stride in terms of output and audience reception. The teams behind restaurants with destination-worthy beverage programs were honing impressive chops—today those same folks run places like Kimball House and Ticonderoga Club, to national acclaim. I knew when restaurants would launch seasonal menus; I had favorite bartenders and servers in different places. I was starting to figure out the space between consuming good food and drink and writing about those experiences. That meant learning to translate a chef’s background, their menu’s intention, the food that actually appeared, and the points of service into a thesis that I could then form into a newsy story. Solo dining meant that I could be alone in my thoughts, but other times, I got to know my bartender or server. Every now and then, I’d meet another solo diner, some of whom have become good friends. I loved the idea that restaurant choice, random timing, and seat placement could connect like minds.
Sam was a bit of a riddle to me. He was divorced with a young kid and seemed sad in some underlying way. He’d dread forthcoming trips to Korea where he said he’d be stuck in a karaoke bar till three A.M. with a bunch of executives, drinking soju until everyone’s wheels fell off. To him, my life as an eager, emerging writer was entertaining—inspiring maybe—and our excursions were his break from mind-numbing corporate life. For me, it was fun to test my knowledge of the dining scene and be celebrated for it. I enjoyed introducing someone who had more mobility than I did, to the places—and the food and drink therein—that I’d come to champion. He never let me pay and always expressed appreciation for the time I spent bringing him up to speed on what was new.
The night we ended up at Ruth’s Chris, I think it was circumstance. We were supposed to meet somewhere decisively less chain-like, but I recall that his meeting ran late. No matter. A good steak has never let me down. I waited for him at the bar and he joined me minutes later. At some point, I began to notice the stares among the staff. Most of them were black, like me. Most of the patrons were white and older, like Sam. I intuited the social algorithms at work as people were deciphering our dynamic.
Dad? Step-dad!—well . . . no, they don’t sound like people who are related.
Years later, I’d begin to reflect on the risks and assumptions preloaded into being an unaccompanied woman dining at a bar. I didn’t know then, sitting with Sam, that there was precedent for women who sat alone at bars and how they have and still are received in American culture. I didn’t know that solo women diners of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were often sex workers, and that the ability to walk into a restaurant and expect equal service as a woman wasn’t fully realized in some U.S. cities until the 1970s. I knew well about Jim Crow and the indignity of segregation, separate entrances, back-alley takeout windows, poor service toward black people. I knew less about the history of special menus for women where items were listed without prices, because women didn’t typically have access to their own capital and couldn’t open a bank account without their husband or father signing off, so why would they need the full menu anyway? I didn’t know then that the country’s earliest restaurants limited women’s dining hours to lunch only, if they allowed women at all, and even then, women patrons ate in separate dining rooms lest they interrupt real business being discussed by men. That history is still with us and it is maddening. A New York Italian restaurant enacted a policy earlier this year prohibiting women from eating at the bar alone—they can now only dine at tables, just in case they’re on the hunt for a customer of their own. Somehow it didn’t occur to the proprietor, a man, that plenty of women eating at bars aren’t looking for sex, paid or not; and that no sex worker can make a living without an interested buyer to begin with.
But the stares I received that night—lingering, penetrating, and curious, not cursory observances extended to all persons in a public space—were enough to get me mulling. I thought back to various meals with Sam in different parts of the city, and how bartenders often verified whether we were dining together, and how they were often unsure of how to present the check—together, separate, in front of him, between us? There had been an air of what is going on here?, and I’d missed it. Had Sam picked up on this subtext all along? Had he known and not cared? Or had I been misinterpreting our friendship the whole time? Was the bar such a fraught space that an older white guy and a younger black woman with no professional or familial links couldn’t have dinner without it being weird? Or was the joke on me?
Yeah. Maybe. When we walked out together to pick up our valeted cars, two black men handed us our keys. I read the silent questions in their eyes and while I knew I owed no explanation, I felt that somehow, they deserved one. We just like to eat dinner together! I wanted to say. And yet somehow, that seemed like the most wrong thing to say. Sam’s parting gaze lingered longer than I was accustomed to and I had a sinking feeling. Maybe these weren’t just fun cross-generational outings for him. Maybe my rib eye had a cost that was separate from the bar check.
After our meal at Ruth’s Chris, Sam and I met up once more in Midtown. We sat at the bar, and I remember that night I wore tall riding boots, with skinny jeans tucked in. He was in a distant mood—wistful, like a guy who wanted to say something but didn’t know how. Too many silent gaps dotted our conversation that evening; he seemed gloomier than his typical ho-hum Charlie Brown routine, but he demurred at my inquiries. When the bartender cleared our entrée plates, I hooked one leg across my knee and leaned back in the bar stool, so the bottom of one boot now faced Sam. In a quiet lull, he took his index finger and lightly dragged it along the heel of my crossed leg. It was the first time he’d touched me when we weren’t saying hello or goodbye, and the casual intimacy hit me like a DEFCON alert. I’ve had men friends for years who’ve never made anywhere near such an overture. His unspoken gesture was an awkward invitation, and I knew then that my dining days with Sam were over. Unrequited interest isn’t always a friendship deal-breaker, but questions now swirled in my mind: Had I ever understood the stakes of this relationship?
“It’d be nice to get a message from you sometime,” he wrote to me weeks later. I didn’t and never would write him back.
“Counter Service” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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