Does solo dining feel like the last supper to you?
Do you feel self-conscious and out-of-place walking into a restaurant on your own?
Would you rather be anywhere else?
If so, join the crowd. Thousands of women love solo travel, but feel terrified or anxious about eating alone.
It is unfortunate, but society has decreed that women on their own are to be pitied, suspected or avoided. Equally irritating is the occasional reticence of restaurateurs who would rather fill their tables with groups of heavy tippers.
By going out to eat alone, we help push back these perceptions and take our place where we belong - at the table!
You may be dining alone, but you’re not the only one:
In other words, all the cool ladies are doing it.
As a solo traveler, you'll probably be dining alone often.
You may find yourself in a huge city like Shanghai or Rio, not knowing anyone, and hungry.
Or maybe you're in a small African town after dark, wondering whether it's safe to wander out in search of food.
Whatever your circumstances, when travelling the world alone, solo dining can be daunting, even for the most adventurous.
I've watched women who climbed Everest or worked as war correspondents cringe at the thought of walking into a fancy eatery by themselves.
No more! We need to reclaim our mealtimes.
Granted, at times we'd like to have a dinner companion but if, like me, you're often traveling by yourself, you'll learn a ton of coping mechanisms (plenty of these below) and, eventually, you might learn to love those moments of peace and serenity.
Here are my best tips for eating out alone:
1. Eat earlier in the evening - or later
Eateries are less formal in the early hours, when families go out. And they're also less crowded later in the evening, when the welcome might be warmer. Early or late, you'll feel less out of place eating alone at a restaurant away from peak hours.
2. Have lunch, not dinner
Lunch tends to be more casual, and going out on your own won’t be as scary since plenty of women take their lunch break in restaurants. In Paris I was having lunch on my own and the waiter plopped someone right across from - without even asking. Practice with lunch. Graduate to dinner.
3. Bring something to read
If you’re going to a restaurant alone, this is standard advice. Not only do you mentally leave the restaurant, but you have a physical barrier between yourself and other diners. And who knows – an intriguing title might intrigue someone enough to start a conversation – if that's what you want. (If not, just smile and look back down.)
4. ...or write
Write some postcards (remember those?) while eating alone or make an entry in your travel journal. (Maybe someone will mistake you for a restaurant critic and provide extra-careful service!) I carry a little notebook with me wherever I go and I'm a compulsive scribbler so you'll always find me writing away at a table.
5. Escape into sound
If you really want to block out the world, use your phone to listen to music or a podcast. If you're in an elegant restaurant, put on some Vivaldi or Beethoven or Carmen. If you're in a diner, try some pop or country music. Get yourself into the mood!
6. Eat outside if you can
Sidewalk cafés are more casual than indoor restaurants. If you have a choice, sit outside. The atmosphere will be more congenial, and you'll feel more comfortable surrounded by activity.
7. Eat at the bar
Some people are more comfortable at the bar and you may be one of them, chatting away with the bar staff and looking like you belong. I can see a potential side effect though - other solo travelers, the kind that are looking for company. Keep that in mind as you pull up your stool.
8. Master a few basic words
Learn a bit of the language - at least enough to ask for the menu, the bill, the toilet, and please and thank you. Take a small phrase book with you - you won't have a conversation but at least you won't end up with a steak instead of lasagna.
9. Learn about the food
Your self-consciousness quotient might skyrocket when confronted with an indecipherable menu. Do yourself a favour and find out about local foods and eating habits beforehand. Your guidebook should have a food section, and you can look at pictures on the Internet at flickr.com or by browsing Google Images. Having an idea of what you want ahead of time will help relieve some of the pressure.
10. Do some advance work
Scope out your eatery ahead of time. While you're exploring the town in daytime, take down names and addresses of places that look welcoming. Are any solo women eating there? Do they look like they're enjoying themselves? You'll have fewer surprises. These restaurants in Canada and these in the United States were voted best for solo dining: maybe try one out?
11. Check out prices before you go
Make sure you know how much this will cost. You don't want a financial shock to add itself to any discomfort you might already be feeling. Match your restaurant to your means.
That's right, pretend you feel at ease! You'd be amazed at how some of that acting will actually rub off, making you feel more confident going out by yourself. Be clear and firm and simply refuse to be seated behind the potted plant. A snooty restaurant will respect you more for it – and you'll feel better as a result.
13. Dress up
Sometimes we're shy because we feel out of place. I often carry something dressy in my backpack when I vacation alone – something black that never wrinkles, along with some black ballerinas or sandals. I always feel I fit in better when I look the part.
14. Meditate and stay in the moment
You've heard it before – the 'live in the moment' approach? Sometimes we're so busy worrying or criticising that the present passes us by. Try having a mindful meal: pay attention to each condiment, each whiff, each bite. Look around and notice every detail. Immerse yourself in your surroundings. This should distract you from your fears and worries and focus your attention where it belongs: on your food.
15. Remember, you're not the center of attention
As human beings we have a tendency to think everyone is looking at us when we enter a restaurant or sit alone. They're not. Think about it: do you glare at each and every person that walks in by themselves? The only time you'll look twice at a solo traveller is if she looks uncomfortable, right?
16. Think about what you’d be missing
It might be tempting to order room service or grab something from a street vendor – nothing wrong with either of these. But there’s something wonderful about a sit-down dinner at a lovely restaurant, and you deserve that kind of experience. While you’re sitting at your table fretting over the hostess’s “Just one?” comment, think about the amazing food you’re about to savor.
17. Order what you know and love
If you're absolutely new to solo dining, this is one way to ease yourself into the experience: eat something utterly familiar, which requires no new etiquette or utensils. Why not try dining alone in your home city, at a restaurant you know that sells food you love? That way your first experience won't be fraught with mispronunciations and strange-looking pincers.
18. Treat yourself!
You’re on a trip, after all. And you just conquered a huge fear by sitting down, ordering something, and finishing it: all by yourself. Whether you want a fancy drink, a decadent dessert, or you’re thinking of a night cuddled up to Netflix on your laptop, make sure there's a reward for you at the end of it all (although, if you choose well, the meal itself will be your reward!)
19. Feel free to get a little indignant!
Don’t be rude to anyone, but if you start feeling sorry looks from the couple one table over, or if the server thinks you’ve been stood up, don’t feel embarrassed! Feel a little mad. Mad that people assume in the 21st century that a woman dining by herself is pitiable. We can run countries and companies, so why on earth can’t we travel solo and enjoy a delicious meal? A bit of righteous indignation will push away any doubts you may have about being where you are.
There's no special sign or secret handshake for eating out alone but there are a few things you could keep in mind.
There are alternatives - although you're only putting off the inevitable (but if you’re travelling alone for the first time, it’s fine to ease into it).
As for me, I'm happy to have the time alone: I just treat it like a mini-vacation and do my best to savor the experience.
What about you? Is eating out on your own a time for fear or fun? Do add any advice you might have at the bottom of the page!