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Dining alone among friends

The dining room at Jitlada is welcoming to singles, as well as couples and groups.

FIRST PERSON | Alicia Utter

I stumbled into the Fillmore by accident six years ago, enticed by an ad for an apartment on Craigslist. Strolling out on the patio with the building manager, I looked down to see my dog’s tail touch his back as he ran around pots of jasmine. Looking up at the quiet apartments surrounding the space, I knew we were at home. And one additional canine later, we are still here, enjoying our neighborhood more each day.

I cherish the friendliness among the locals. Neighbors know your dogs’ names, what building you live in, even when you had a bad day. I’ve come to feel a part of this place: mourning when the Fillmore Hardware store closed, searching out the best noodle place in Japantown, spending an afternoon in the park with the dogs and a novel, relishing the trees and fashions at the bus stops as they change with the seasons.

Like many other city dwellers, I live alone. And one of the luxuries of being a solitary creature is dining out alone: catching snippets of conversations in a restaurant, ordering just what I feel like, taking my time to enjoy it, feeling the rhythm of the room.

Jitlada, at 1826 Buchanan, right across from Hotel Tomo and within view of the Japantown Peace Pagoda, is a simple, clean Thai restaurant — not advertised, but nearly always full of locals. The decor is a simple two-tone paint job with small, vibrant paintings of dragons and lotuses hanging on one wall. In the corner is a small dedication for Buddha, tended lovingly and adorned with new incense and fresh fruit and flowers. The tables are simple, easy to combine for larger parties or to separate for romantic dates.

The waitresses have been there for years and they know me and other regulars by our orders, if not by our names. We comment on new haircuts or chat about the week’s events.

On a recent visit, I take out my companion for the evening — a thick novel — and head toward the back of the restaurant. From this vantage point, I can hear the hubbub of the kitchen but stay out of the way of the crowded tables, ordering takeout with the least hassle. The waitress gives a familiar smile and drops off two menus: one regular and the other listing the specials. The specials rarely change. I order a favorite noodle dish, Evil Princess: chicken and spicy red curry sauce with coconut milk, cabbage and spinach. Some nights it’s the steak, very tender and infused with lemongrass; other nights, one of the delicious soups or pad thai.

The waitress smiles again as she pours the glass of pinot noir I habitually order while waiting. There are several full tables tonight. The South American guitar music on the speakers is lovely. A dish of prawns comes out arranged like a sculpture, the tails creating an open bowl filled with sauces. Diners all around ooh and aah at the spectacular presentation. A group behind me discusses Steve Jobs.

My food arrives in a plastic bag, ready to take home and eat, but I sip my wine and continue reading. They never rush me out of this place, even after my takeout is ready. I love that.

As I finish the last of the wine, a woman comes in and picks up her takeout order. She is businesslike — just walking in and naming her food. I say good night to my favorite waitress, glad to see the place is busy so she will have a good night.

I pull on my sweatshirt and wrap my scarf on my neck. It is one cold night. Following the stern walker out, I adjust my purse at the door. She looks at me and asks, “What’s your favorite?”

My head jerks over, surprised. Her voice is much softer than I expected.

“Ah, the red curries,” I say without hesitation. “Normally the soup, or the Evil Princess. You?” It feels surreal to talk to someone after being so solitary in that crowded room. So many of us, craving Thai food on a Tuesday night. That openness among locals — never discussed, but a familiarity, a knowledge of the underpulse here.

“I like the mild stuff, usually the pumpkin curry,” she says, admitting that she needs to step outside her comfort zone.

I know it well — sweet, not spicy. As for me, I crave heat and spice at all times.

“I recommend the steak,” I offer. “It’s delicious when you want some red meat. Good night and enjoy.”

I turn toward Sutter as she turns toward Bush. Not so alone after all.