"I'd like to give you a nice, clean spoon," says the waiter, placing a clanking collection of cutlery on my otherwise empty table. Oh, I bet he bloody would.
After all, it is exactly 12 noon on a grey Tuesday afternoon in the middle of a fiercely unlovely February. There's a Baltic wind whipping around the gussets of London's Soho as I sit at the restaurant table, in a red Nylon frock, preparing to eat a full three-course Valentine's Day meal alone. Entirely alone.
Because, let's be honest, Valentine's Day is to dining what Steven Segal is to Shakespearean drama. It is to happy couplings what chlamydia is to cervical swabs. It is to a romantic meal for two what a hatchet is to a well-formed dectet of fingers.
So I took one for the team, shouldered the burden, put on my eating shoes, and decided to show at least one chain Italian restaurant precisely why women do it better on their own. Or, to put it another way, spent a wincingly self-conscious hour-and-a-half chewing through a mountain of oily heart-shaped carbohydrates while wishing I could slip under the table for a nap.
They were playing "Girl from Ipanema" as I walked through the double doors, festooned with tiny red paper hearts. When I asked for a table, the lovely woman at the doorway smiled, looked over my shoulder, and said: "Just for you? Oh, you can sit anywhere."
Sure I can. I'm a mother-trucking one-woman eating machine.
There is no San Valentino menu on my table so I get up, stagger out from from under the heart-shaped helium balloon above me like a crab, scuttle around my pleather seat, and reach over to a table for four and pick one up. Incidentally, I would love to see the double date that picks this place for a midday pre-four-way dinner. Just imagine.
To get things started on the right foot, I order a cocktail. To be specific, I order the "Rosa Royale"—a gently fizzing combination of Disaronno Amaretto, cranberry juice, San Pellegrino Limonata, and freshly squeezed lemon juice. It tastes half way between lemonade and cherry shampoo, and I drink the entire thing in about four minutes. The waiter, I note, is wearing a wedding ring but on the other hand. He is also doing some quite extraordinary skip-jogging between tables and at one point, as I glance over the menu, does a little wiggle to ask me if I want any sides.
Three girls across the restaurant from me pose for a selfie in front of a string of hearts. I sip my cocktail, alone, and try to look soignee. The two people next to me are either the world's most unlikely couple, or this woman has taken her accountant-cum-gynaecologist out for a special celebratory lunch. The girls start chair-dancing to "Fever" by Nancy Sinatra. I take off my cardigan.
Of course, I dressed up for this. If there is any grace to be gained from sitting alone in a chain restaurant behind a giant wipe-clean menu of heart-themed specials, then it is to be done so while wearing red. In my case, a red dress I bought 12 years ago at the Leeds outdoor market from a woman in a cowboy hat and fingerless gloves.
I order the starter of peperonata Bruschetta, a heart-shaped (of course) ciabatta topped with roasted peppers, onion, crumbled goat cheese, and basil. As I wait, two older women walk in wearing cashmere coats and sunglasses, every inch the geriatric Italian lesbian ideal.
"Well, this is nice," says one, sounding resolutely un-European. "It's good to sit down."
Her companion leans across the table conspiratorially and, with a wink, replies: "Jane, at our age we've got to have a nice time."
Too bloody right, gals.
With the echoes of marzipan still washing around my mouth, I notice a man in a McLaren Honda cap talking into a hands-free kit in the corner. He talks to the white headphones for the entirely of his meal. He doesn't even try to catch my eye.
It's with some relief that I greet my starter. The heart-shaped bruschetta is, however, not heart-shaped. It's bread-shaped. It is—let's not mince our words—two slices of bread covered in cheese.
Never one to let reality get in the way of romance, I push the bread into something like a heart and sit back. Look ye upon my works and despair. The waiter comes up to offer me black pepper. I decline. Then the woman who seated me glides past and offers—yup—black pepper. It must be something about my face. I must simply scream out the need for seasoning. Mr McLaren Honda is still barking away in the corner as his coffee arrives. A woman in morgue makeup sits at the table across from me, silently typing on her phone as her mother and friend make awkward small talk.
As Big Band jazz oozes out of the speakers and the paper hearts flutter in the brutally cold February breeze, I realise that people are looking at me. And my giant, red, heart-shaped sleeves. Like the chorus at a Greek tragedy, they are looking upon me with a mixture of fear and pity that is made all the stronger as my main meal arrives.
Oh yes, you've guessed it: it's heart-shaped.
The Amore rosso fresh egg pasta filled with three cheeses, cooked in a Pomodoro sauce and topped with mascarpone and fresh basil is—how can I put this?—chewy.
Actually, how I really put it, in a mid-meal text to my friend is: "I'm eating some pasta the precise texture of a sanitary towel, all alone, in the middle of Central London." She responds at once. "Of course you are."
My heart pasta comes with seven halves of a cherry tomato. Well, it doesn't do to go overboard. About 12 minutes ago, I decided to get shitfaced and so have ordered a glass of Prosecco. I feel like something out of a Mike Leigh-directed Boots advert. As bowls of pasta, pesto, and cheese go, this is great. Warm, filling, delicious. Oh sure, it has the undeniable air of student Valentine's Day food, but it's none the worse for that. I mean, at least this way you're probably not going to end up getting fingered by a man in a leather jacket who smells like Old Holborn.
Because I skipped breakfast and cycled in to make room for my midday three-course extravaganza, I am by now feeling pretty drunk. And full. Sort of overstuffed, if I'm honest. Nora Jones comes on over the romance stereo and my face begins to melt. I'm on the edge of lonely. "Cheese hearts don't replace a beating one," texts my friend, helpfully.
Luckily at this point, another single woman comes and sits next to me while on the other side, a trio of girls with enormous tar-slick eyebrows start talking about pre-lunch shots. The Other Single Woman orders calamari and when it arrives (in a little wire basket) it genuinely smells like knickers. Good on her.
With my main despatched, it's time to talk about pudding. I order the Coppa Rosa Sundae. It's layers of strawberry gelato, coulis, Amaretto biscuits, and whipped cream topped with chocolate tagliatelle. If you're wondering what "chocolate tagliatelle" is then I can tell you: it's chocolate sprinkles. This pudding is basically frozen fruit and cream with a confetti of chocolate on top. When it arrives with two spoons, I can't help but wonder, just for a second, if I'm being mocked.
Although of course I'm not. None of us are. As I look across the restaurant, by now completely full and bubbling merrily with the chatter of midday eating, I realise something: I'm not alone. I never was. From the tourists flicking through their camera rolls to the teenage girls drinking Diet Coke, the geriatrics chewing on toothpicks to the waiter grinding out black pepper like Beyoncé at the Super Bowl, we all belong here.
There is no shame in eating at a table for one. There is great freedom, power, and solace in having the time, money, and freedom to take yourself out for a romantic meal. We all deserve love. And we all love someone or something. Even if it is just lunch.
And with that, I settle up my bill, pull on my coat, and slowly walk out of the door with my head held high and a smile on my face.
Oh, and huge piece of basil flapping, unnoticed, in my teeth.