JOHN F. Kennedy once entertained a group of Nobel prizewinners, calling them the most distinguished gathering of intellects to have dined at the executive mansion, 'with the possible exception of when Mr [Thomas] Jefferson dined here alone'. JFK meant this as a tribute to Jefferson's remarkable mind. But I prefer to dwell on the scene of the great statesman enjoying a solo dinner by candlelight at an immense mahogany table.Hong Kong's lavish tastes would have suited Jefferson; he employed a French cook and one of Europe's finest maitre d's. No doubt old Tom dined marvellously, enjoying the peace and quiet while contemplating his chef's work, and possibly making notes for a treatise on smoked squab [pigeon] which will one day come to light. Solitary dining is maligned. It bears the stigma of its distant cousin in the sexual realm: harmless, pleasurable, yet somehow embarrassing. It takes a brave man or woman to dine alone at a top-class hotel grill, and face the stares of waiters and patrons. Traditionally, only rich, grumpy eccentrics dine by themselves; restaurants are for excursions a deux, or multiples thereof. And at Chinese restaurants, in a city where people do everything but have appendectomies in groups of 12, one encounters an enigmaas well as a stigma: how do you enjoy a balanced meal of say, meat, vegetables and soup, without ordering enough to feed four? Few grumpy rich people are that eccentric. Who dines alone unashamed? Secret agents. Axe murderers in solitary. Count Dracula, in a sense. All are social outcasts of one type or another. In Chinese and Western society, those who eat alone in restaurants are to be pitied. Gunter Grass got to the heart of this absurdity in his novel The Flounder: he wrote of a people who were ashamed to eat publicly, though they convened to perform bodily functions that we relegate to small porcelain-lined rooms. Nevertheless, for the free spirit, solo dining has its advantages. One is the absence of the need to talk. Conversation is an art much like photography; for every worthy practitioner there are millions who produce little or nothing of value. Their attempts are the verbal equivalent of the underexposed, blurred snapshot with the subject's head cut off.And since they make use of the same set of organs, dining and speaking are, like the phone-fax-message machine, a clumsy combination, more trouble than they are worth. Say an old friend ropes me into trying out a new Middle Eastern restaurant with him. I am about to take my first bite of fillet of braised sea bream when my friend says, 'So, what have you been doing since 1967?' Unless I follow my instincts and ignore him, I'll be talking for most of the evening, between occasional mouthfuls of room-temperature couscous. There are other benefits to being alone: if your table manners lapse, your mate will not alert you by poking a spiked heel through your instep. Neither will calorie-counters or timekeepers shame you into declining dessert or coffee.Resolved, then, that solitude is preferable for those who like to concentrate on their meal. It is a sublime pleasure, which should be enjoyed, like everything in life, shamelessly. Since you will be concentrating on the food, choose a good restaurant. Hong Kong's service ethic makes dining alone here less problematic than in Western cities. If you've got the money, you've got the table. Only in the most exalted palaces will the headwaiter look absently over your shoulder, refusing to accept that you are the only member of your party. The scale is up to you, but many people, finding themselves without company for lunch, mistakenly choose their local greasy spoon, rationalising that they are saving the good restaurants for when they have company. In fact, they are trying to conceal their perceived social failure from their colleagues. And while won-ton noodles are excellent, dining elbow-to-elbow with 600 other people is not conducive to reflection. Hotel coffee shops are the perfect middle groundin Hong Kong, lying just between the New York lunch counter and the Italian trattoria in formality. Here you have international standards without the string quartets and champagne buckets. There are some secrets to satisfying solo dining. Do not go at lunch hour; wait until 2 pm. You'll be more welcome, and the waiters will be tired, and less likely to bother you. You'll also be served faster. Order something rich and sinful. The time to be virtuous is when people are around to appreciate it. Alone, it should be the Grand Hyatt's lobster bisque, or Mandarin Oriental's eggs benedict. There's no one to stop you from emptying the breadbasket at The Regent. And did you miss one of the desserts at the Marriott buffet? Go back and get it. No witness but God, and orange mousse is surely in his plan anyway. Atmosphere is not as crucial when dining alone; after all, you are trying to eat, rather than enlist your surroundings to achieve some ancillary goal. You are not impressing your boss, seducing your prey, flattering your subordinates, fulfilling an obligation or keeping visitors entertained. You are eating. Full stop. Choose a place with ample space between the tables. It scarcely pays to forego conversation yourself if you must listen to a neighbour describe his recent colostomy. Some bars in Hong Kong are worth looking into. You will be mistaken for a misfit, but such is the norm for bars, which are traditionally the refuge for the lonely and abandoned: set 'em up, Joe, and all that. Enjoy your fish and chips in peace. Since English pubs provide food designed especially for British social failures, you might vary your routine and try some German bars.Indian restaurants are also good for solitary diners, and you can order that weapons-grade vindaloo that your friends forego every time. We are fortunate. A profusion of good mid-range restaurants and efficient transport makes Hong Kong the perfect city to cultivate the art of unaccompanied dining.Not everyone had it so easy. On his inauguration day my champion of one-per-table dining, Thomas Jefferson, walked from his small boarding-house to the ceremony. When he returned there was no food left for him: first come, first served was the rule. The third US president went to his room without dinner.In Hong Kong he could have made the buffet at the Club Sri Lanka.