Issue #30: What turns dining alone into a positive experience?
Sitting at the counter versus people-watching & avoiding the 'Only Me' trap. Plus, what waiters really think of solo customers.
One Saturday four years ago, I was refused service at a cafe local to where I live in north London. Officially, it was because I was reading a newspaper on my iPad – I was told that ‘iPads and laptops are banned’. However, as I put it away and the owner still withheld the brunch menu, the uncomfortable reality dawned: she didn’t want me taking up a table All By Myself, even though the cafe was half empty.
‘I think it’s a good thing,’ commented the middle-aged busybody sitting on the table next to mine, as I collected my things, red-faced, to leave. ‘People don’t talk to each other enough these days.’ Her husband – who, ironically, hadn’t said a word since I’d first sat down – nodded in agreement. I’d recently left a long-term relationship with someone who was, although a considerably better conversationalist than Mr Busybody, sadly not my Mr Forever. Newly single, I was navigating the break-up by learning, for the first time in my life, to enjoy my own company – and chronicling the process on social media.
Why do we struggle to dine alone in the first place? I suspect because of a prevalent ‘Should’ that we ought to have companions to eat with – rendering a meal eaten alone at a restaurant a public suggestion that we have failed to do so, whatever the reality.
That situation could have crushed my solo dining ambitions forever. Instead, I got angry. I dislike confrontation, but I dislike playground bullying even more. I hadn’t acted inconsiderately; minutes earlier, I’d even moved table to allow a family of three to have a more spacious spot. It wasn’t busy. Why shouldn’t I – in the absence of my ex, or someone else – be allowed to enjoy the experience alone?
(This story has a happy ending. I tweeted about what had happened, and ended up in the local, then national, press. The editor of Grazia commissioned a feature, which caught the attention of my now-book publisher. The rest is Alonement history. Still, I’ve since maintained a one-woman boycott of the place, which is a shame because they did – still do – really, really good halloumi bagels.)
I was reminded of this incident recently, during an ill-fated solo restaurant visit in Lisbon. It took 10 minutes to be seated, by Waiter #1 – who then disappeared. ‘Where are your friends?’ asked Waiter #2. Minutes later, Waiter #3 asked, ‘Are your friends joining you?’ (I could swear it was all a staff Dare at this point…). No one took my order. Anyway, I left. But it did make me think about solo dining, and what can make or break it as a positive, or negative, experience.
I have a rule for myself: if an experience is enjoyable with others, I believe I should be able to enjoy it solo, too. Dining in a restaurant falls into that category.
Why do we struggle to dine alone in the first place? I suspect because of a prevalent ‘Should’ that we ought to have companions to eat with – rendering a meal eaten alone at a restaurant a public suggestion that we have failed to do so, whatever the reality. That ‘Should’ is visually reinforced, as you walk into a restaurant where tables are set up for multiples of two. Socially, from the popularity of sharing plates to the fact some reservation systems don’t even let you book a table for one. Economically, too: it’s a common (although not strictly true) judgement that dining as a couple or group will make you a more valuable customer, and so some people feel insecure dining solo for that reason.
I have a rule for myself: if an experience is enjoyable with others, I believe I should be able to enjoy it solo, too. Dining in a restaurant falls into that category. It’s not that these meals-for-one are preferable to eating in good company – they’re just different, more a mindful experience of a restaurant’s food and ambience, and a self-esteem boosting treat for myself. Solo dining reinforces that I like myself enough to go out for dinner with (it’s also made me a lot less likely to dine with people I don’t like).
I don’t want to fixate on things like the cafe incident, which was a worst-case-scenario compared to my myriad positive experiences of eating alone since. I’d rather contemplate the best-case scenario: what makes dining-as-one a joyful, celebratory experience of quality time with oneself? What makes it alonement, rather than lonely? Thankfully, I’ve now got a whole community to help me find the answer. Putting the question out to you all on Twitter/Instagram, I wrote:
‘When eating out, what makes a good solo dining experience for you?’
Here’s what you came up with, plus my tried-and-tested advice, for transforming your meal into the best possible version of solo dining.
How to make dining alone a positive experience
Seating arrangements: Counter dining vs. people-watching?
Here’s where you said you’d like to sit while dining alone:
‘Facing out for people watching or a counter. Love it!’
‘A nice window view to watch the world go by if possible’
‘Good people-watching opportunities!’
‘Placement of table so I don’t sit alone in the middle of a restaurant’
‘Ideally a table with one or two seats’
‘People watching locations’
‘100% counter or booth’
A question emerged over counter dining versus people-watching opportunities. Let’s consider each in turn.
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