The Personal Booth
This piece was written for Rob Walker’s Narrative Strategies for Objects project as part of the 2019 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive, and published in Overlooked/Underappreciated, an examination of the minutiae of quotidian life.
The personal booth at Don Filippo Pizzeria, perhaps the only one of its kind in New York City, is nearly invisible. It’s tucked between two standard booths, beneath a small TV at ceiling height, just past the register. Large enough to fit one comfortably, with enough room for bags and coat. It faces the dining room of the restaurant: small, square, with full booths along one wall and tables filling out its center. When I take my place in the booth, behind the granite countertop, set my pizza slice down beside the red pepper flakes, salt shaker, and chrome napkin holder, it’s as if I’ve slipped into another room entire. I can still see out, they can still see in, but the climate has changed. My pizza seems hotter than it should. The back of the booth in front of me feels abrupt, reminds me of a train compartment, and I anticipate a sudden lurch into movement. The waiter approaches. “For famous,” I am told through a grin, but allowed to stay.
A Google search for “personal booth” or “booth for one” elicits the generated question “Where can I eat alone in NYC?” The pathos of that question, the mundanity of it. Set against the din of an ever-moving city, the personal booth strikes another tone. Soft, muted, it’s the blip in a performance when a struck piano key makes no sound at all, or when the soft pedal is employed, moving the tone from sharp to dull. It elevates and suggests the solitary wanderer, a city made up of single moving beings, the quick lunch to oneself punctuating a busy work day, a moment apart from the constant churn. It recalls the luncheonette or automat, where the department store clerk, the advertising executive, the nanny with her stroller, might stop for a quick bite, a coffee. Table for one at the counter, drop your nickel in the slot and open the designated window to claim your key lime pie through the glass door.
The allure of the personal booth lies somewhere between the energy of the power lunch and the anonymity of claiming your pie the automat. There is a peaceful rush at finding myself alone, suddenly. At Don Filippo’s, even though the booth is near the register, it feels disengaged from any kind of hurry, while also being aware of it. The utility of the space is the antithesis of the white tablecloth, which presumes a long lunch. But once I sit down, nothing prompts me to get up quickly. No one waits for their turn in the booth. The tiramisu in the cold case just across the narrow aisle beckons. The spring seat has a pleasant give. There’s no guilt at taking up a whole booth when I’m just one, no empty seats to face. But the charm of the booth lies in it’s being an arcane quirk of the city rather than a constant. A wall of personal booths mimicking a counter’s length of stools doesn’t appeal as much as one tucked under the eaves, blending right in.
When I ask the waiter if he knows anything about the origin of this booth, he only dives deeper into its brush with fame (which involves a photograph taken by Sarah Jessica Parker). He doesn’t know if the booth exists by design or by accident, a thoughtful addition or the byproduct of extra space. Regardless, it gives the individual a sudden room of their own, if only for a moment, allowing one to reemerge as oneself as one only can after being by oneself.