Dining alone

During one summer in the 80s I had a week’s vacation from my job selling shoes at Marshall Field’s, and after considering places to go I decided to stay in town. Nobody said “staycation” then but that’s what it was. I resolved not to do anything I wouldn’t do in a hotel: no laundry, no dishes, no housekeeping. I might have replenished my toilet paper but that would have been my only accommodation to vacationing in my own apartment. For the entire week I visited museums and the zoo, rode the El to neighborhoods I hadn’t been to, and ate out at every meal, often with friends.

The climactic blowout meal of the week was to be dinner in the dining room of the Ritz-Carlton hotel. It was my favorite place to eat in the city and I had invited my friend Joyce to be my guest. Joyce called on Saturday afternoon, though, to say that she was sick and couldn’t come to dinner. I felt bad that she wasn’t well but was also disappointed not to have her company for what would undoubtedly be a grand culinary experience. I tried without success to round up a last-minute companion, so dinner tout seul it was to be.

The dining room of the Ritz-Carlton offered a not-too-expensive fixed-price dinner—around forty dollars at the time—but with money for dinner for two in my pocket, I added every available extra. I opted for the wine pairings, of course, and the optional foie gras course and the glass of Sauternes that was suggested to go with it. I believe I answered the “cheese or dessert?” question with, “Yes,” but by then a haze had settled over me and the details are vague. I may have eaten two desserts. One thing I do remember is the glass of 1840 Madeira I took after the food was gone. It was the color of tobacco, and velvet-silky. As I sipped I contemplated the presidency of Martin Van Buren, during whose term the wine was made. The entire meal lasted three-and-a-half hours and set me back $340, a princely sum even now and definitely an extravagance then. Afterward I staggered across the lobby to the elevator, rode down to the street, boarded a 151 Sheridan bus on Michigan Avenue, and went home.

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