Dining alone is a topic that comes up frequently in food writing. I was browsing articles online the other day and I saw an advice column about how to eat alone and not look like a loser. I bristled at this association because I wondered why someone dining alone automatically qualifies as a loser.
Then I got back from Kansas City on Sunday night and I started talking to my mom and sister about my dining experiences. “I don’t know how you do it,” my mom said, referring to my dining alone. I often dine alone when I travel or even throughout the week when I want to try a new restaurant.
My mom was saying that she wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it because everyone looks at you. I told her that while there’s some truth to that, you just have to be confident and not care who is looking at you. “You should write a book,” she said.
I probably could write a whole book about dining alone but for now, I’ll start with a blog post. I wanted to provide some tips for people who want to dine alone but perhaps feel too self-conscious or afraid. Trust me when I say, there is nothing to be afraid of when dining alone. In fact, it can be a great opportunity to get more of out your experience at the restaurant.
When I was in college, I read an essay from food writer M.F.K. Fisher that changed the way I viewed dining alone. Up until that point, I’d never really had a solitary meal in public. Then I read Fisher’s essay from “Alphabet for Gourmets,” “A is for Dining Alone.” Here’s an excerpt:
“…and so am I, if a choice must be made between most people I know and myself. This misanthropic attitude is one I am not proud of, but it is firmly there, based on my increasing conviction that sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly … There are few people alive with whom I care to pray, sleep, dance, sing or share my bread and wine. Of course there are times when this latter cannot be avoided if we to are exist socially, but it is endurable only because it need not be the only fashion of self-nourishment.”
Basically, why would we eat with someone else when we could have a great time alone? I like that Fisher characterizes a meal as an intimate act. Enjoying food, like other pleasurable pursuits, should be done in good company. Sometimes, the best company is ourself.
Here are my tips for dining alone:
1.) Accept that people are staring at you. There’s a psychological phenomenon I read about recently that says we think people are staring at us more than they actually are. I think this is true, but I also think that when you’re dining alone, you will be looked at. People are curious, nosy, and sometimes downright rude. You’re not a mind reader so you don’t know which of these they’re being when they watch you down a plate of tortellini.
When I dine alone, I accept that people will look at me and I tell myself that I don’t care. The more I practice this, the more I find that it works. Sometimes, I even make eye contact back and then they look away.
2.) Get there early. Your instinct might be to get to a restaurant late if you’re dining alone so no one will see you, but I’d advise you to do the opposite. Get to the restaurant as early as possible, maybe even right after they open. This will do two things: It ensures that you’re not waiting around alone for a table, which can get annoying after 20-30 minutes. It also gives you an opportunity to take in the restaurant’s ambiance and enjoy it before it gets too crowded.
Another side perk of this strategy is that you could score a great seat. I showed up to Giant in Chicago a couple years ago and didn’t have a reservation. I was early enough though that the hostess offered me a seat at the chef’s table. I spent dinner chatting with the cooks and watching them prepare my meal. That’s an experience I doubt I would have had if I was dining with another person.
3.) Sit at the bar. I hesitate to include this because I’m a big believer in solo table dining. I think that as a diner, you have a right to a table experience no matter if you’re dining by yourself or with a party of five. But sitting at a bar does have its perks. People next to you are more apt to make conversation. Bartenders tend to be friendly and can offer good recommendations on food and cocktails. Plus, you’re not facing an open room so there’s a little more privacy. I’ve found that whenever I sit at the bar, someone tries to talk to me. Often this results in a good conversation or at the very least, funny one-liners I can laugh about later.
4.) Order like you would normally. This seems intuitive but I think a lot of people change their order when they dine alone. Yeah, you don’t want to eat for a whole table, but order food that you’re eager to try. Don’t worry about how it looks. You’re at a restaurant, you’re paying for a meal, and you should enjoy it.
5.) Bring a book. When all else fails, a book can be a great companion. The restaurant or bar has to be well lit, but if you have a book, you have built-in entertainment. I usually carry a book in my purse and pull it out when the lighting is good or I’m sitting at a coffee shop or café.
6.) Become a regular. Think about the times you’ve gotten the best service in life. I’m not talking just at a restaurant; I’m talking about anywhere. Usually, it’s when people know you and feel a personal obligation to make your experience better.
When you become a regular at a restaurant, you’re establishing a relationship with the place. Wait staff and managers will start addressing you by name and making conversation. You’ll start feeling like you’re not at a restaurant, but a friend’s house or a family member’s kitchen. You can achieve regular status with a partner, but I think it’s easier and more rewarding when you do it on your own.
7.) Be confident. This is one of the hardest things to do while dining alone but probably the most important. I feel myself about to go on a tangent about dining alone so I’ll just let it happen.
One of the things that upsets me most is a restaurant that discriminates against single diners. It’s subtle but you can still see it: For instance, a restaurant that only allows parties of one to make reservations at the bar, or a restaurant that doesn’t allow parties of one at all. Or, a restaurant that serves a party of one but the service is way worse and your meal takes forever to come out. Trust me when I say, I’ve experienced it all. There’s nothing worse than paying for a meal and walking away with a bitter taste in your mouth.
So, I would advise you to be confident. Walk into the restaurant and don’t act ashamed of being there by yourself. Ask questions of the bartender, barista, or waiter/waitress. Order food that you enjoy eating and take your time eating it. If there’s a problem, be assertive about it.
At the end of the day, you’re paying for this experience. You deserve a nice meal enjoyed in your own company. If you follow the tips I’ve listed above and go into it with an open mind, I think you’ll find that dining alone can be even more enjoyable than dining with someone else.