People-watching in the guise of eating out

Dreams are free and, more important, COVID-free, so let me dream up solo dining out there in the world

Photos by the author

ALL IS EMPTY At the beach in Silom, Pangasinan (Cover design by Jules Vivas)

What’s the best spot for a solo traveler in Paris? It’s the terrase, that open-air spot for any solo diner or drinker. Whether it is a makeshift corner on a sidewalk, tucked away in a courtyard, a secret garden, or on the rooftop of some venerable building, it will do.

It doesn’t have to be the balcony of the Karl Lagerfeld-designed Marie Antoinette Suite at the Hôtel de Crillon. It doesn’t have to be at the bottom of the Neptune fountain outside La Fontaine Gaillon, which the French actor Gérard Depardieu used to own, nestled in Place Augustine between Opera and Palais Royal, right in the heart of Paris.

Any place will do, such as streetside at Le Carmen in Pigalle, the Belle Epoque mansion that was once the home of the composer George Bizet, where he would entertain the likes of Marcel Proust. Just don’t dream away too much lest the pickpockets run away with your purse or wallet. Or it could be a lone chair at a small table set up just outside the door of a Thai nook in a narrow alley near Lafayette.

In fact, it doesn’t even have to be Paris. You could be anywhere in the world, even in Manila, as long as this Amihan keeps blowing, as long as there are people walking by. Ok, there’s Omicron. It’s not quite safe even outside, but dreams are free and, more important, COVID-free.

PEOPLE SIGHTINGS At a ski resort on Zugspitze, the tallest mountain in Germany

So what’s the best spot for solo dining as a guise for people-watching? Like I said, a terrase in Paris, something like it, where you could watch the girls strutting away in all that is tres, tres French. Better yet, it has to be somewhere you could watch them kissing boys. I saw more of that, however, more of the kissing, in Vienna while enjoying a sauterne I paired with a sachertorte just outside the Hofburg.

But Paris is lovely. The people speak French and you know, I don’t remember who said it—Was it  

Diana Vreeland, comparing the number of facial muscles that would move every time you uttered a French phrase like comme ci, comme ça as opposed to its English equivalent, so so? Plus, the sound of French, that hard, guttural “r,” that very nasal “en,” and the silent letters at the end of the words that sound like a breathless pause in an Edith Piaf song.

But I don’t mind Italian-watching either, like I did when I moved from the inside of the historic Caffe Greco, the oldest bar in Rome, the second oldest in all of Italy, to a table placed on Via Condotti or the street at the back, just a stone’s throw away from the Spanish Steps in Rome. Inside, I was enjoying my superexpensive capuccino with the ghosts of James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Friedrich Nietzche, and Charles Baudelaire, who all, like me, had had coffee there. Outside, though, it was nice to watch live Italians gesticulating to emphasize their overemphatic, emotional speeches, their arms stretching out to the sky, their chest heaving, their heads turning like a screw.

COCKTAILS IN PIGALLE The author (right) with LVMH's Patrick Cuna at Le Carmen in Pigalle on a nightout in Paris

The first time I was in Budapest, I sat on the sidewalk, negotiating with a sausage in a bun just outside the Keleti train station. People were in a panic. Police cars were sounding sirens, their lollipop lights ablaze. It was the beginning of the great migrant crisis or a turning point thereof. I didn’t know about it until I arrived harried and hapless via a fast train from Vienna and, finding my way to the hall connecting the international trains to the city trains, I had to step over so many people camped on the floor. I asked a Hungarian police officer in English what was going on. He shrugged his shoulders, waved his arms, and muttered under his breath, “Syrians!” But as I walked out of the crazy station, I decided I hadn’t had enough of the action, so I sat on the sidewalk, at a sausage stand, to be inside of it. In retrospect, though I was merely a bystander, I was in a page of history.

It doesn’t even have to be Paris. You could be anywhere in the world, even in Manila, as long as this Amihan keeps blowing and as long as there are people walking by.

I must have done a lot of people-watching in Asia, enough to have observed that young couples in Seoul walked so intertwined that they appeared to walk only on two legs instead of four. In Singapore, on the other hand, the girls would walk at least half a step behind their boyfriends. In Tokyo, the boys walked stiff, straight, while the girls pranced around them, tickling them, teasing them, pinching their noses.

ALONE ON THE CANAL No one in sight on the banks of the Venetian lagoon in Venice, Italy

Don’t take my word for it. In Seoul I must have drunk one shot of soju too many. In Singapore, it must be the mirage created by the year-round humid heat and the Singapore Sling with which I tried to cool down. In a Tokyo winter, the sake felt so good, especially in the cold outdoors.

What is the equivalent of a terasse in Manila? The smoking area, I suppose. But even outside restaurants, such as in the al fresco section of Savage and Helm at Arya Residences at McKinley Parkway in Taguig, where I would indulge in a skillet of Josh Boutwood’s Chilean mussels with parsley oil and cream, there is no way you could smoke without some guard telling you to snuff it.  

But I don’t remember any such episode in which I sat outside watching people, except maybe way before Duterte banned smoking in public in Metro Manila. I brought my after-lunch Americano out of Chateau 1771 at Greenbelt 5 and out of the pre-pandemic crowd, emerging like a vision—indeed, a vision!—was Heart Evangelista. A perfect catchup because it was unplanned.

But, no, save for the afternoon I spent on my own at the garden section of Sala Bistro at the pre-renovation Greenbelt 3 being plied with Old Fashioned by the kind bartender, I’m not really sure Manila is a great spot for people watching.

It’s not because the people are not nice to watch. Once in pre-911 New York, when the New Yorkers were so mean they’d push you out of the way if you as much as walked like a tourist taking everything in, I watched a Filipina stand head and shoulders and long, black hair above the crowd. She looked so young, her skin stretched over her cheekbones.

It’s not because the weather is always sweltering, and we’re always taking refuge from the heat in airconditioned dining rooms.

It’s not because the streets in Metro Manila are really only for cars and motorbikes and trikes and rickety trucks.

It’s because in Manila, everybody knows everybody. One is never really alone, except now, with Omicron on a rampage, and some of us are stuck at home.

Or worse, away from the sick members of our household, we are in solitary confinement within the four corners of our bedrooms. This is exactly where I am right now, writing this, waiting for COVID to make its presence felt in my body, and dreaming about those days I could sit outside restaurants anywhere in the world, watching people.