When people first start traveling solo, one of the things they are most nervous about is dining in public alone. There seem to be a few fears at play here:
1.) The fear that others will see us eating alone and judge us to be lonely, friendless pariahs.
2.) The fear that we’ll receive poor service because of being alone.
3.) The fear of not knowing what to do without a dining companion to talk to.
Fear #1 is groundless: Almost nobody will notice that you’re alone, because most people are too self-centered to notice anyone outside their own circle. The only people who might notice that you’re alone are other solos–and they’re certainly not going to judge you poorly for doing what they’re doing. As long as you are content with your solitude, that will radiate from you and nobody will think twice about you dining alone.
In the 20 years I’ve been traveling and dining alone, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve received poor service because I was alone. These include the “table by the kitchen” scenarios and waiters who seemed eager to rush me through my meal to turn over my table. But the vast majority of my dining experiences have been no different than it is for couples or groups.
I find fear #3 the most interesting. Probably many of us grew up having family meals around a dinner table featuring lots of conversation–about politics or how everyone’s day went and so on. If that’s what you’ve been used to your whole life, then venturing into a world where you dine alone does feel a bit alien at first. But you’ll eventually develop some strategies for this: Sitting at the bar so you can chat with the bartender or other people dining next to you; bringing a good book to read; texting friends on your smartphone; writing in a journal; or simply people-watching.
At some point, once you’ve done it long enough, solo dining becomes second nature. You start to recognize that it isn’t an obstacle to be overcome or an unpleasant experience to be tolerated (like a visit to the dentist). There are actually benefits to dining solo. (And I’m not just talking about how easy it is to score a single seat at the bar in a crowded restaurant. Although that is pretty handy.) There are joys to dining solo.
There’s the pride and sense of accomplishment that comes from learning to order successfully in a foreign language when dining in another country.
There’s the joy that comes when servers start remembering you by sight and greeting you by name because you’ve returned to the same restaurant or coffee shop a few times.
Focusing on the dining experience itself can be a joy, especially if you’re a foodie. I don’t know about you, but too often when I dine with others, I miss most of the details of my meal because I’m so focused on the person or persons at the table with me and our conversation. When I’m alone, the sensory experience is heightened: I truly taste the flavors of the food and drinks; I test myself to see if I can identify all the ingredients; I pay attention to the presentation of the food. I notice little details around the restaurant, like the decor, other customers, the staff.
If you think about it, a solo diner is a chef’s dream customer, because we can focus on their hard work, their artistry and efforts without being preoccupied by holding up our end of a conversation. I think one of the reasons I’ve received mostly good service is because most waitstaff now realize that while they might not make as much in tips off a solo as a large group, the solo also isn’t going to tie up the table talking for hours after a meal is over and she isn’t going to require the server to perform mental calisthenics trying to split the check several different ways. In other words, we’re not as much trouble.
For me, another joy of solo dining is knowing that each experience is going to be different: The location, the meal, the service, the friendliness (or lack thereof) of the staff, the atmosphere of the restaurant, how you choose to spend your time–whether by sitting at a table reading a good book, or gazing out the window at passersby, or sitting at the bar socializing. It’s a surprise every time–often a delightful surprise. I’ve met so many interesting people in restaurants who happened to be sitting at the next table or next seat over at a bar. I never would have met them if I’d been with a friend.
If your travel vacations are limited to a week, like me, you may try to cram as much as possible into each day. Which makes mealtime a precious opportunity to slow down and reflect on your day. You can’t always do that when you’re with other people.
With a companion, you might find yourself unduly influenced by their impressions of what you saw and did that day. And on top of that, you have to hold up your end of a conversation. This gives you no time for individual reflection. Alone, you have time to figure out how you feel about your experiences.
I’m not a nosy person by nature, but I have to admit, dining alone does offer the opportunity to observe other people without being too obvious about it. People-watching can be fascinating–looking at people’s fashion choices, the way they walk down a street, how they interact. Dining alone also allows you to overhear some of the most interesting conversations. Sometimes, I hear snippets of people’s lives that make me want to know more about them. This “Theater of Life” playing out in front of me tends to spark my imagination.
Those are some of the things I have learned to love about dining solo when I travel. Yours may be different. It may take you months or years to learn to be comfortable dining alone. Or you might love it immediately.
Over the past several years, I’ve collected friends in regions all over the world and so sometimes when I travel, I do have company for a meal or two. And don’t get me wrong, I love those meals, too. Who doesn’t love catching up over a good meal with friends? And sometimes I meet new people during my travels to break bread with. But I no longer think that having company for a meal is better than dining alone. I think they both have their benefits, and I’ve come to embrace the opportunity to enjoy both when I travel.
How do you feel about dining alone in public when you travel? Love it? Hate it? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!