Tucked away in an unassuming corner of Chicago’s Art Institute is a 19th-century painting by American artist Fernand Lungren modestly titled “The Café.” In bold strokes of crimson and gray, the painting depicts a young Sarah Bernhardt, the French stage actress, sitting alone in a velvet banquette at the legendary Café de la Paix, her gloved hands wrapped firmly around a wine glass as she centers her gaze over the Parisian streetscape. 

As a young student shuffling between the museum’s sprawling galleries, I must have walked past “The Café” dozens of times, always pausing to take in the audacious color palette and devil-may-care confidence of the painting’s subject. Here was Bernhardt, smartly dressed and enjoying a night out on the town ​— ​in the company of herself. This was the woman I wanted to become, worldly and autonomous, dressed in ostentatious ruffle dresses while sipping inky red wine and dining well and alone into the evening.

Of course I loved sharing a great meal in the presence of good and familiar company. But alone, I could take in the sights and sounds of my surroundings without obligation ​— ​to myself or anyone else.

As I began to scrape together enough money to explore new cities, I quickly discovered that sidling up to a bistro counter sans company offered up benefits that extended way beyond symbolic merit. For one thing, it was a great way to demystify the inner workings of an unfamiliar town, absorbing culture and community through steaming plates of food and amusing observation. It also afforded me the occasion to slow down considerably ​— ​lingering, if I liked, over a fortified digestif without regard. 

Photo: Paul WellmanThe author eating at Lucky’s Steakhouse, all by herself.

Of course I loved sharing a great meal in the presence of good and familiar company. But alone, I could take in the sights and sounds of my surroundings without obligation ​— ​to myself or anyone else. I was just another patron in a foreign café sharing a meal among strangers. The anonymity was liberating. 

“When you’re not sitting across from someone, you’re sitting across from the world,” said author Stephanie Rosenbloom in her new book, Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude. And even when solitude gives way to impromptu encounters, the experience can oftentimes be equally gratifying. 

When I first moved to Santa Barbara ​— ​coincidently, home to more than 300 works by Lungren, who helped shape the city’s art scene when he moved here in 1906 ​— ​a “Cowgirl Plate” at the now-defunct Blue Agave prompted a conversation with the couple sitting next to me. “Were the mashed yams any good?” they asked, and by the end of the evening, I’d made my first set of friends in a new hometown. And one of the most memorable dinners I’ve ever had in Paris involved a clairvoyant waiter who turned out three expertly timed courses with silent accuracy before setting down two glasses of herbaceous amaro, which we sipped together while she shared a list of some of her favorite dining spots in the city.

A Table of One’s Own

A 2015 OpenTable study found that in the U.S. alone, party-for-one bookings increased a whopping 62 percent, making them the fastest growing table party size and suggesting that perceptions of solo dining are beginning to shift. “Each person who dines alone makes it easier for the next person to do so because they can see that other people are doing it, so maybe it is fine,” said social scientist Dr. Bella DePaulo, a UCSB academic affiliate and author of Alone: The Badass Psychology of People Who Like Being Alone. 

And yet for women in the U.S., the right to relish a meal in open solitude has been a hard-fought battle harking back to the 19th century, when female-only eating establishments called “ladies’ ordinaries” were created in response to the demands of a growing women’s suffrage movement. (Before then, dining out in public was prohibited in the absence of a male escort.) And this past January, Manhattan eatery Nello came under fire when publishing powerhouse exec and longtime regular Clementine Crawford exposed the restaurant’s alleged new policy: Women would no longer be allowed to dine alone at the bar because “the owner had ordered a crackdown on hookers,” wrote Crawford in her essay “The Night I Was Mistaken for a Call Girl.” 

With every encounter, my reverence for solo dining was reinforced, deepened in a way that made me feel more — not less — connected to humanity.

“All these years we have been battling for a room of one’s own; and, little did we know it, but we are still fighting for a seat at the table (or bar, to be strictly accurate),” Crawford wrote.

And so, over the course of several months, I set out to study solo dining in our fair city, chronicling some of the people and dishes that contribute to the fabric of Santa Barbara’s culinary scene. Along the way, I spotted other women indulging in party-of-one meals, too, like the septuagenarian in a smart pantsuit putting away a horseradish-crusted sirloin at Tee-Off with proper aplomb, or the choreographer celebrating a successful performance with platters of rainbow-hued sashimi at Arigato. DePaulo was right: With every encounter, my reverence for solo dining was reinforced, deepened in a way that made me feel more ​— ​not less ​— ​connected to humanity.

Here’s what I discovered.

Intermezzo Bar + Café

It’s 7 p.m. on a Friday when I walk into Intermezzo, and the sound of clinking glassware and amplified chatter swirls feverishly around the softly lit room. I’ve been coming here for over a decade, after work and before a show, in the company of friends or alone with a good book. On a random Tuesday night, there might be a handful of solo patrons sprinkled around the intimate room, reading the paper over a plate of crispy cauliflower or a glass of Babcock pinot on tap. 

But the weekends are for lovers, and they’ve come here in droves tonight, lining the bar and rearranging the chairs so that their knees brush softly against one another as they smile over ramekins of ahi tartare. I spot an empty stool near the entrance and sink in for the night. A familiar waiter whisks past me and waves, and the woman sitting next to me smiles warmly and compliments me on my boots. Her date is gesturing wildly at the bartender, and she rolls her eyes in exasperation and moves in a little closer. “He wants me to get into white wine,” she confides, “and I’m not having it!” 

When he emerges with two fresh glasses of chardonnay, she pushes one toward me and asks me what I think. I tell her I prefer their Stolpman “Para Maria,” and the bartender nods expectantly as he fishes out a clean glass. “Make that two,” she calls out, and her date scowls at me in annoyance. “You ladies all like to stick together.” 

I order an artichoke flatbread and pretend to be really interested in my phone. It arrives in minutes, slathered in creamy pesto and studded with charred pine nuts. When my waiter returns, he insists I give him a big hug before I leave, a request he’s never posed in the company of my partner. When I tell him as much, he grins sheepishly and backs away. “You know it,” he calls out, and disappears into the kitchen. 

819 Anacapa St.; 966-9463; intermezzosb.com

“The Café” by Fernand Lungren

Smithy Kitchen + Bar

Thursday nights outside of The Granada Theatre are always a feast in their own right, with arts patrons spilling out onto State Street for spirited, post-performance debates before shuffling into the sardine-packed Good Lion bar for a bespoke nightcap. Tonight’s show ended early, so I duck around the corner to sleepy Anapamu Street, where Smithy’s inviting marble counter serves up farmers’ market fare and slick cocktails through the better part of the evening. 

I order a velvety burrata and persimmon salad and a Dragonette rosé, grateful for the peaceful setting. The couple to my left is talking excitedly about the Granada performance, and I smile at them both and tell them I really enjoyed it, too. “What do you think that last piece was all about?” asks the man, and before I can answer, his companion grabs his arm and asks about a second round. She narrows her eyes at me, and I get the hint. 

I focus on my salad instead, bitter and sweet and satisfying, with crunchy radicchio and endive laced with a perfumed vinaigrette. Images of the evening’s dance performance spin vividly around in my head, and, slowly, all of the elements of my hectic day melt into one harmonious now. The wine director stops by to say hello, and we talk grape varietals and travel until I’m too sleepy to pick up my glass anymore. When the hostess escorts me to the door, she pauses outside for a moment, too. “It’s so gorgeous out tonight,” she says, and in the still and quiet night air, I nod my head in agreement.

7 E. Anapamu St.; 845-7112; smithysb.com

SOhO Restaurant & Music Club

Mid-week, there are few places in Santa Barbara that can accommodate a diner’s request past 9 p.m., and even fewer who can serve it up with a side of quality live music. Which is why I’m tucked merrily away on the second floor of Victoria Court on an inconspicuous Wednesday night, enjoying one of the city’s best-kept secrets: SOhO’s bright and briny avocado kale salad topped with a trio of toasted seeds and pickled red onions. Paired with a Jaffurs syrah and one of my favorite East Coast bands, I am in solo-dining bliss. 

“So, are you, like, on your break or something?” I look up to see two middle-aged men slinking gradually toward me, and it takes me a moment to realize they’re directing their question at me. “We were just wondering why you were having dinner alone.” I search their faces for hints of humor or irony, and when I determine they lack both, raise my glass toward them and smile. “Because life,” I say simply, and tap my foot to the music. 

We were just wondering why you were having dinner alone. I search their faces for hints of humor or irony, and when I determine they lack both, raise my glass toward them and smile.

Without a word, the bartender tops off my wine glass and chuckles. The room is filling up quickly, and tables and stools are being pushed aside to make room for the overflow. The waitstaff weaves seamlessly around me, insisting I finish my dinner at my own pace, and I want to, except that a photographer is circling around me, snapping pictures and mumbling proclamations of “You’re so fierce” and “I might have a crush on you.” I check my moon phase app, searching for an explanation. 

The band is impeccable, and as I walk into the main room to take in the final song, the middle-aged twins are suddenly at my side again. “We weren’t trying to offend you back there,” offers one of them, and the other one shakes his head solemnly. “It’s just that if you were my wife, I’d spend every day by your side. You’d never have to eat dinner alone.” And I laugh, in revulsion and amazement. Because life.

1221 State St., Ste. 205, 962-7776; sohosb.com

Lucky’s Steakhouse

When I’m back east, no visit is complete without the requisite “Sunday Supper,” a tradition my girlfriends and I adopted years ago as an excuse to consume inordinate amounts of pasta and elaborate desserts before the sun went down on the weekend. Back in Santa Barbara, I make it a point to ease into Monday with similar fanfare, and when the Mister is away, I stroll right over to Lucky’s for what has become my favorite Sunday ritual for one. 

Tonight, the bar is uncharacteristically quiet (on Oscar Sundays, the room is three deep with industry folk shouting at the TV broadcast), and as I grab a seat at the counter, my favorite bartender swoops over to prepare a classic white napkin service with expert precision. And that’s where convention ends ​— ​because while most patrons come to Lucky’s for their filet and chops (this is a steakhouse, after all), I’m here for the most delicately prepared tofu steak this side of Japan. Marinated in a vibrant ginger sauce and nestled on a bed of braised greens and seared shiitakes, it is a soulful indulgence made heavenly with the addition of crispy potatoes blanketed in Gruyére. 

Next to me, a gentleman probably in his late sixties pushes his dinner plate aside and introduces himself. He tells me about the disastrous round of golf he endured earlier this afternoon, how he never did as much traveling as he would have liked to, and how many martinis he allows himself over the weekend. “I’m sorry you had to sit here next to me,” he sighs, as he gets up to leave. “If you’d just come a half hour earlier, there were some real studs here that would have loved to be in your company.” 

I pat him on the shoulder and tell him I enjoyed my company just fine. “I don’t like to leave a lady sitting at a table unaccompanied,” he adds. “But something tells me you know how to take care of yourself.” With a tip of his hat, he’s gone. 

And for a few moments, it’s just me again, my fingers wrapped gingerly around a glass of Stolpman syrah as I watch the bartender garnish a martini glass. I may not be wearing a ruffle dress tonight, but I’m as gratified as Sarah Bernhardt herself.

1279 Coast Village Rd., Montecito; 565-7540; luckys-steakhouse.com