The Joys of Solo Dining

by Gray Cargill on July 16, 2014

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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.

Table

That doesn’t have to be a table for two.

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.

Tapas

I was ridiculously pleased with myself when I was able to order a meal in Spain entirely in Spanish

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.

fish

By dining solo, I can really focus on the flavors and sensations of eating a great meal.

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.

Julian Serrano Bar

The bar at Julian Serrano (Vegas)

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.

Double Barrel Roadhouse

Mealtime is a great opportunity to people-watch

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!

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Tracy Antonioli September 29, 2014 at 12:43 pm

First–Gray, I love this post. I think it really addresses the main fears people have about dining alone. They certainly were my fears, way back when.

I remember my first solo meal at a restaurant–it was at Neptunes on Marthas Vineyard. I was there for three weeks for a grad program, and darn it, I wanted a lobster roll (it was also my first lobster roll). I was SO NERVOUS. And then I went in (Neptunes is/was really nice) asked for a table for one, ordered, ate…and nothing bad happened.

So I did it again. And again. And now I have to do it, traveling for a living as I do. And do you know what? All of the pros you listed are so very true that I actually have a hard time dining with others! The other night, after a long-ish travel day, I landed in Roswell and needed dinner. But I had coworkers in town, and they wanted to eat with me. I ‘let’ a coworker pick a place–we ended up at a Mexican dive (not bad) that had neither air conditioning nor alcohol (VERY, VERY bad!) While I love dinner with friends and colleagues, had I been on my own, I’d have dined somewhere else for sure!

The moral of my story: just do it. It gets easier. EVERYTHING scary gets easier. Promise.

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Gray Cargill September 29, 2014 at 4:22 pm

Thank you so much for sharing this, Tracy! That describes perfectly the joys of solo dining! Boy, do I know what you mean about letting other people pick restaurants. Sometimes it means you find a cool new place, and other times it’s a struggle to find something on the menu that you’re willing to put in your body. :-)

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Ted August 10, 2014 at 4:09 pm

At least in the United States, it seems that a single woman traveler is approachable, and perhaps invites the “nurturing instinct.” Conversely, a single man is someone to be feared and avoided as a possible criminal or sex offender. It’s less about gender bias than the Fear that permeates and even defines American society (which proudly leads the world in incarceration). I’d imagine it’s even worse for African-American men, who have the additional burden of racial prejudice that includes association with criminality.

I suspect, though I can’t be certain, that this Fear of solo men is much less of a problem outside the United States. Canada is the only other country I’ve visited alone. I did find Canadians noticeably friendlier than Americans. The other circumstantial evidence is that the only people who have fearlessly approached me during my solo travels in the United States, and who were genuinely interested in having conversations with me, have had foreign accents. And those who didn’t have foreign accents were Canadian.

Still, the difference in treatment may have something to do with why nearly all discussion of solo travel in print and on the Internet is by and for women. Women may indeed be better able to enjoy the social aspects of solo travel. An alternative explanation is that women have a greater need to share their excitement about the freedom and empowerment that solo travel offers, while men just take their solo trips and don’t talk about it.

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Gray Cargill August 10, 2014 at 7:45 pm

That’s a fascinating observation, Ted. I really can’t even begin to speculate about the differences between nationalities in how we treat solo male travelers. As for why women write more about solo travel, I think you have it right here: “An alternative explanation is that women have a greater need to share their excitement about the freedom and empowerment that solo travel offers, while men just take their solo trips and don’t talk about it.” Yes. Also, if you think about it, women (in the U.S., at least) didn’t have a whole lot of freedom before the last few decades to do things like travel alone unless they were wealthy enough to do whatever the heck they wanted. I was just reading an article that women couldn’t even have credit cards in their own names back in the ’60s without having a husband co-sign for them. That would’ve made solo female travel a bit cumbersome. So the fact that we can travel alone now and get along so well doing it is really a pretty awesome development for us. :-)

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Tracy Antonioli September 29, 2014 at 12:37 pm

I, uh, talk to solo men at restaurant bars ALL THE TIME.

Not sure what that says about me, though…hmmm….

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Aleah | SolitaryWanderer.com July 30, 2014 at 8:04 am

Like Christine, I also haven’t noticed any difference between dining solo and with someone else. Actually I haven’t thought about it much. I always bring my Kindle with me, anyway. I love reading while eating. Like Maria as well, I also choose an outside table if it’s warm.

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Gray Cargill July 31, 2014 at 5:14 am

Well, I’d say the biggest difference, Aleah, is that you’re reading your Kindle during your meal instead of chatting with someone else. :-) I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoy solo dining so much now: It’s one of the few opportunities I have to stop and read!

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Ian July 23, 2014 at 12:02 pm

I’m not normally hung up my dining alone, but fancy dining establishments are still a sore spot for me … maybe I need to test out my assumptions…

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Gray Cargill July 23, 2014 at 4:05 pm

Still? Meaning you’ve had a bad experience dining alone at a fine restaurant, Ian? They’re not all bad.

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Sandi Palmer July 18, 2014 at 1:33 pm

I think you really hit the nail on the head with your article. As I’ve become more comfortable with dining alone when I travel, I find it has really changed the whole tenor of my trip. Instead of keeping an eye out for take-out that I can take back to my room, dinner becomes something to look forward to. I went to New Orleans at the end of June, and ate in some wonderful restaurants there (Commander’s Palace, Muriel’s, Tableau). A couple of times I sat at the bar and chatted with the bartender or other patrons, but other times I sat at a table. The service was generally great (though I do tend to notice slower service when I dine alone), and I never had to wait for a table. And, being NOLA, the food, of course, was fabulous! :-)

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Gray Cargill July 19, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Thank you, Sandi. I totally agree about New Orleans–whenever I think of great foodie cities, that’s one of the first two I think of (Vegas being the other). You almost can’t get a bad meal in New Orleans.

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Ted July 17, 2014 at 12:08 pm

I have had a few bad experiences with single-hostile restaurants. Once I called to make a dinner reservation and was treated cordially until I answered “one” to “hoe many in your party?” There was a pause, followed by “we don’t take reservations for one.”

But that’s not as bad as the experience I’ve had twice: I walk into a restaurant for dinner and put my name on the waiting list as a “party of one.” The greeter rather coldly tells me to have a seat. Then I sit down and wait. And wait. And wait, while I notice couples, groups, and families being warmly welcomed and seated immediately. They clearly did not want a single diner (or perhaps a single male diner?) wasting one of their tables. But they either didn’t have the gall to tell me that outright, or perhaps they just enjoyed watching my discomfort increase until I finally figured out that they had no intention of ever seating me.

Of course, those experiences are noteworthy only because they’re the exception. All three cases were in popular tourist destinations at popular times, not that it’s any excuse or justification for treating customers that way. What I’ve learned is that it’s best to simply avoid dinner at restaurants that are crowded with couples and families. Get to the restaurant before the peak time, and there’s no problem.

Better yet, avoid “dining alone” entirely. Instead, have your main meal at lunch, as Europeans do. It costs less, and (at least for me) there’s no “courage” required. There’s no real stigma, or even anything particularly unusual, about eating lunch alone. Lots of working people, or those traveling on business, do it regularly. Nobody thinks twice about a “party of one” for lunch. While I’m waiting for my food, I either read a book or look at a map or guidebook to plan the afternoon’s activities. No problem. Then for dinner I go to a grocery store and have a picnic in my hotel room. Two restaurant meals a day are too many calories and too many dollars anyway.

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Gray Cargill July 19, 2014 at 1:04 pm

Wow, Ted, I have never had the kinds of bad experiences you have. Sorry to hear it. That seems like exceptionally bad luck to me. I 100% disagree with you though, that we should avoid dining alone entirely. No, no, no! The more we do it, the more restaurants get used to solo diners and see the value we bring to their restaurants, the more other people see how easy it is to dine alone and enjoy it. To hide ourselves away just sends the message that there’s something wrong with dining alone, or that we’re second-class citizens in restaurants. I don’t agree with that at all. Perhaps you need to start dining at the bar for awhile (instead of a table), to see if that is any easier for you?

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Rob July 23, 2014 at 11:25 pm

I don’t think you get the earlier posters point. He seems fine eating alone. Gender bias comes into play here. As a 40 something single male, I have spent the last decade traveling the world for at least 15-20 weeks a year. I am very comfortable eating alone. Sometimes I travel alone and sometimes with a companion. You would be amazed how common it is for a single male to be looked down upon making a dinner reservation at a high end restaurant where reservations are hard to get. Most restaurants are tuned to take care of a single female. They seem unforgiving of a single male especially in the western hemisphere.

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Gray Cargill July 24, 2014 at 9:15 pm

You’re right, Rob, I didn’t get that he was referring to gender bias in fine dining establishments. I had no idea that was going on. I rarely eat in fine dining establishments anyway (certainly not the ones that require reservations weeks in advance), so I wouldn’t have the opportunity to notice if men and women were treated differently. It’s a shame if so, and I’m sorry to hear it.

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Christine | GRRRL TRAVELER July 16, 2014 at 7:35 pm

I haven’t noticed if I’ve gotten worse service. I’ve never compared. Sometimes, I chat the waiters/waitresses up just to learn more about the culture and their insight.

I do agree that the senses around you are heightened because you can focus on your surrounding and food without having someone filling up all that silence with gabbing. lol. Some folks talk too much and it’s like sex… it ruins the moment. Then I spend that entire meal screaming “Shut uuuuup!” in my head; you’re trapped for that whole meal.

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Gray Cargill July 16, 2014 at 8:45 pm

LOL, Christine. You and I have a lot in common. :-)

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Maria Falvey July 16, 2014 at 6:53 pm

I feel I get better service when dining solo – maybe I seem more approachable, or perhaps it’s because a single patron is easier to wait on than several at one table, don’t know. I also will sit at a table outside if available and the weather permits so I’ll have lots to watch or sit at the bar – bartenders are often very friendly and there’s always the opportunity to chat with whomever takes the seat next to me – much more easily achieved than if seated at a table.

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Gray Cargill July 16, 2014 at 8:43 pm

I also love to eat at an outside table when the weather is nice, Maria. Of course, it’s more expensive in Europe than eating inside, but it’s worth it to me.

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Melissa August 10, 2014 at 11:39 am

I sometimes wonder if I bring out the nurturing instinct in some servers when I dine alone? Sometimes they seem extra attentive, checking to make sure I’m doing ok, making extra small talk and the like.

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Gray Cargill August 10, 2014 at 12:28 pm

I am starting to wonder the same thing, Melissa, especially after reading Ian, Ted’s and Rob’s comments. It sounds as though we women may have an advantage in this regard.

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Ted August 10, 2014 at 4:21 pm

What I’ve sometimes noticed is that servers seem to rush me when I’m eating alone. They might, for example, deliver the main dish before I’m done with the salad. Or ask me about dessert either before or immediately after I’ve finished the main dish. And the bill arrives very quickly when I ask for it.

Of course, it could be that their concept of good service to a solo diner is to make him feel comfortable by reducing the time spent sitting alone and waiting. It’s perhaps the opposite extreme from those restaurants that refused to take my reservation or ignored me as they seated couples and groups.

The line between efficient service and being rushed out the door is a fine one, possibly related more to perception than the actual intent.

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Gray Cargill August 10, 2014 at 7:51 pm

I’ve noticed that in restaurants, Ted, but I can’t say it’s a pattern for when I’m solo. I’ve noticed the same thing when I’m with a group of friends or one other companion, too. I think some restaurants and servers just really have their act together, and others don’t.

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