Growing up in a middle-class family, eating out at a restaurant (especially a fancy one) was a luxury; and hence, immensely fascinating. Whether I went with parents or friends, it was always something thrilling—because it symbolized breaking out of the ordinary. But now, as an adult who eats out a lot, I have realized how terrifyingly patriarchal a space the Indian restaurant is.
As I look back to all the times I dined with my family in restaurants as a kid, I can’t help but think of how my father called all the shots—whether it was being in charge of ordering, or paying. I remember how, despite my mother reaching for her purse when the bill arrived, the waiter had always addressed my father. It was such a subtle way to discredit her significance (both economically and otherwise) that at that time, even she didn’t realize; thinking that it was ‘natural’ for my father to pay.
Today, I often find myself in similar situations. When I’m out with a male friend, he is always the focus of the staff’s attentions. He’s the first person to be handed a menu, the one the waiter looks to for the order, the person the waiter asks whether or not we are enjoying the food (notice how he’s expected to answer for my dining experience as well), and finally, the person who is handed the bill. There have been times when a male friend has been put on the spot, not having enough money on him to pay for the meal but still expected to do so because the waiter is standing there, looking at him expectantly. On more than one hilarious occasion, male friends have been handed the bill when the meal was supposed to have been my treat!
Whether it be a friend, or my own father, the restaurant staff almost always assumes that I’m either inferior to or less capable than or dependent on the man I’m dining with. It gets worse when there’s alcohol involved. Often, while ordering drinks along with a male friend, a ‘milder’ drink has been suggested to me instead of the stronger stuff, because of course women are ‘too delicate’ for hard liquor.
The age-old patriarchal bias that haunted my mother haunts me now. And something as commonplace as going to a restaurant and dining with your friend becomes tinged with unequal gender politics.
But nothing comes close to the stigma behind a woman dining alone. I’ve been frequently eating alone in restaurants this past year—and my experiences with the restaurant staff have ranged from amusing to downright exasperating. Here’s the example of an interaction that has actually happened more than once:
Me (on entering restaurant or cafe): Table for one please?
Waiter (pausing to size me up): Are you sure about that, ma’am?
Indeed, they are often baffled when a solitary woman enters their establishment, and proceeds to order a meal and eat it by herself. Once they do reluctantly seat me at my table, they continue to stare at me in trepidation (sometimes openly, sometimes surreptitiously) the entire time I’m having my meal. There have been times when they have been way too quick to clear my plates even though I barely finished eating in a not-so-subtle gesture of ‘we’re done with you’. Ordering alcohol on your own is again a veritably minefield -one time they openly directed me to their mocktail menu when I had clearly asked for cocktails. Even though I haven’t faced a situation where the staff has been openly rude, I can almost always sense their discomfort or condescension.
I have never seen the same kind of treatment being meted out to male customers who dine solo. It’s as if the staff see them as something ‘normal’, but when it comes to women —we’re an anomaly.
This is part of the same culture where women still face trouble occupying public spaces on their own terms because of the aeons of patriarchal stigma which has forbidden us from doing so. And when we do, we are faced with harassment, discrimination or (like in my case) quiet derision.
While more and more restaurants come up in India and claim to be female-friendly by offering ‘Ladies Nights’ and other free services to women (which are not so female-friendly after all because they’re essentially luring male customers using female customers), the truth is that they still operate with patriarchal beliefs that have no place in a domain that should essentially be meant for indulging or enjoying oneself.