How to Dine Alone (And enjoy it too!)
The first time I ate alone at a restaurant was two nights after my boyfriend told me he was leaving.
We were living in New York that summer, and although it was supposed to be a dream come true, it felt more like a nightmare. I think I have never felt more alone than I did that hot and humid summer in East Village.
When he told me he was leaving, I cried and raged, sometimes both at once, cursing and bawling, blaming and sobbing. I completely lost the ground under my feet, my whole life was falling apart. Suddenly, I didn't know if I had a place to live two weeks later. I couldn't in my wildest dreams imagine surviving the pain. I didn't want to live without him, anyways. Or so I thought.
And yet, there was something that clicked into place.
I decided to go out for dinner alone that third night. Nothing fancy, just something more than a fast-food place. A place with a real menu, table service and towel napkins.
For someone who has been lonely and struggled with social anxiety for most of life, it was a huge step in the direction of confidence and self-love. Up until that point in my life, I don't think I had ever even considered dining alone as a possibility. I had always felt nervous and anxious in restaurants, even when I had company. Even getting takeout without having my boyfriend – or should I say ex-boyfriend – place the order for me would make me tense and give me sweaty palms.
And then I decided to go to a restaurant alone. I didn't have the energy to cook. I didn't want takeout.
I was craving hummus, dammit.
So I walked in and asked for a table for one.
My voice was shaking.
I got my table, ordered, then hid behind my ipad for the whole meal. I only looked up to glance at the other tables and wonder what they were thinking of me. Those people, those who had company. Those who had friends. Those who had lovers and husbands and families. Those people. What were they thinking?
I don't think I have EVER eaten in a restaurant that fast!
Three years later, I can proudly say that I am comfortable dining alone.
Actually, this post came to me as I was waiting for my food in a fancy vegetarian restaurant in Barcelona. I flew alone to Spain to meet up with Camille from This American Girl, but she wouldn't arrive until later that night. And I, I was hungry for something delicious and vegan.
I'm a foodie. I like good quality food. And I also like my own company.
Dining alone is a natural part of who I am.
What I enjoy most about dining alone is the freedom and the feeling of empowerment I get when I do. I can take care of myself. I am confident. I am capable.
I've dined alone multiple times in NY, LA, Utah, Norway, London, Berlin, Kuala Lumpur, India – and now Barcelona. Each part of the world has it's own distinct culture when it comes to eating out. In India and Malaysia, I was definitely breaking some cultural barriers, whilst in LA or New York I oftentimes would look around and find that I wasn't the only solo guest in the room.
Dining alone used to terrify me, and if you feel the same way but have a secret wish to be able to master this situation, I want you to know that you are not alone (ha!) and that it gets better with experience. I am now able to dine out without feeling much discomfort at all.
On my journey from fearful to fearless, I have picked up a few little tricks to share with you:
How to dine alone (and enjoy it too!)
Bring a book or a journal
Something to focus on while you wait for your food is a good idea, especially if you are new to solo dining. However, try to avoid hiding behind your phone or other electronics. I know it feels safer to be playing with your phone (look! I have friends!) but most restaurants are way more lovely for everyone if electronics are put away. Instead, to flow with the atmosphere, I suggest an old-fashioned book or a journal. For lunch newspapers would work too. Especially the New York Times, and a cup of really really good coffee... if you know what I mean!
Ask for a table where you feel safe
Often, restaurants are laid out so that the smallest tables are on the middle of the floor. In my experience, though, it feels much better to be seated with your back against a wall, to give you overview of the room. It could also feel better to have a table near a window, or as far away from the entrance as possible. You know best what feels safe for you. Don't be afraid to ask for what you need, and to request a change of table if you're not comfortable. You're the guest, you're the boss.
Be open to communication
Dining alone doesn't mean you can't communicate with others. I've had some great conversations with waiters and waitresses, and sometimes even exchanged a few words with the people on the opposite table.
When it comes to asking for a table, I often find it opens communication to say something to the waitress along the lines of "do you have a comfortable table for one available? I'm travelling alone and when I researched the best vegetarian food, your place came up several times, so I just knew I had to come here at least once before I leave!" Casually mentioning that you are dining alone, takes the edge off it. There's nothing worse than to shamefully and shyly ask for a table for one, so silently whispering that they can't really hear you... right? Communicate openly, honestly, and vulnerably – and the other person will feel connected to you instantly.
Dress for the attention you want to attract
If you are uncomfortable enough with eating alone in the first place, you might want to pay a little attention to how you dress. If you want to blend in, dress to blend in! Just keep in mind that "blending in" means very different things in India than in New York City... This also goes the other way, of course. If you are dining alone, but silently hoping to bump into mr. perfect solo diner at the table next to you, dress accordingly!
Avoid prime dine time
In my experience, dining alone becomes a better experience if the restaurant isn't packed. Generally, I try to go for an early or late lunch, and an early dinner. The restaurant will have more tables available, there will be less noise, the staff will have more time for you, and you'll feel less like the odd one out.
Trust your instincts
If it doesn't feel good at all, leave. You'll know the difference between healthy nervousness, and raw fear. There is no badge of solo dining honour and there is no point in painfully forcing yourself through a dinner in a place or situation where you don't feel safe. Tell them something unexpectedly came up, pay for your food, ask for a take-away (or don't!) – and leave.
Take safety precautions
If you are in an unknown country or it's late, tell someone where you're going and when you expect to be back. Ask the staff to walk you out to your car. Take normal safety precautions. Dining out isn't any more dangerous than anything else, but you should use common sense. Don't get drunk because you are nervous and binging on your wine!
Order exactly what you want
The real luxury of dining alone is that you don't have to pretend to be someone you're not. Salads are not your thing, you say? If you want that extra side of fries and guaca, the weird combination or adaption, or the triple chocolate dessert – there is no one there to judge! Don't judge yourself either.
Enjoy your food!
You are dining out because you want to enjoy a great meal, and not having – or wanting – company is actually something that can enhance your dining experience. Normally when we eat in the company of others, we focus more on the conversation than the food. Not when you're alone! Dining alone is a great opportunity to practice mindful eating, and to really pay attention to your food. Don't chug it all down, but eat slowly. Don't forget dessert! You deserve it.