Does solo dining sometimes 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 making efforts to go out and eat alone, we help push back these perceptions and take our place where we belong – at the table!
EATING OUT ALONE DOESN’T MEAN YOU’RE ALONE IN EATING OUT…
You may be dining alone, but you’re not the only one:
- 30% of European diners are eating dinner alone these days
- in the United States, studies say some 46% of meals eaten by adults are eaten alone
- according to another study in 2017-2018, 80% of people believe solo dining is more socially acceptable than it was even five years ago
- since 2014, Bookatable (an online restaurant reservation service) reported a 38% increase in single diner reservations.
In other words, all the cool ladies are doing it.
As a solo traveler, you’ll probably be dining alone often (especially if you’re on business travel).
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 traveling 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.
TABLE FOR ONE: 19 TECHNIQUES TO HELP MAKE SOLO DINING FUN!
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 that come with dinner for one.
Here are my best tips on how to eat 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 by yourself outside peak restaurant hours.
2. Have a solo lunch rather than dinner alone
Lunch tends to be more casual, and going to a restaurant alone won’t be as scary since plenty of women eat out at midday. 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 just 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 out 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 single dining 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 into good restaurants and are more of a solo or single gourmet, 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 of your surrounding.
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 to say please and thank you. Take a small phrasebook 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 favor and find out about local foods and eating habits beforehand. Your guidebook should have a food section, and you can look at pictures online. Having an idea of what you want ahead of time will help relieve some of the pressure.
10. Do some advanced work
Scope out your eatery ahead of time. While you’re exploring the town in the 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 dinner: 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 in a city – 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 serves 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.
DINING ALONE ETIQUETTE: WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
There’s no special sign or secret handshake for eating out alone but there are a few things you could keep in mind.
- Make reservations: one of the most daunting parts of walking into an eatery alone is telling the host you’re alone. Doing it over the phone is much easier and because they’re only expecting one person, you won’t face any uncomfortable moments at the door.
- Avoid romantic restaurants: you know the ones, with low lighting and lots of champagne. You’ll be surrounded by couples, but worse, you may wish you were part of one as well – and that could ruin your wonderful evening.
- Plan your responses: if you’re terrified of being asking, “Only one tonight?” or “Are you waiting for someone?”, have some canned responses at hand so you don’t end up stumbling over your reply. Put a huge smile on your face and respond, “Yes! Thanks so much, one happy, hungry person,” or “No, I’m here on a solo trip to Rome, and it’s been lovely so far.” Look confident, and the feelings will follow.
- You can refuse to sit with another patron: if you’re not in the mood to make friends, you don’t have to. If the host tries to put someone else at your table, kindly but firmly say you’d like to eat alone.
- You can turn down an undesirable table: it’s common for restaurateurs to put solo diners in dark corners near bathrooms or the kitchen. You are paying for your meal, and you are as human as anyone else. You can request a table by the window, if it suits you, as long as it’s not decorated with a ‘reserved’ sign. Don’t hesitate to make yourself heard.
- Tip well (for good service, in countries where tips are customary): while you don’t owe anything extra simply because you’re dining alone, it shows your appreciation and may make it easier for the next solo female diner to receive a warm welcome.
- Turn off your phone: this is for your benefit as well as everyone else’s. I’ve had dinner ruined by someone laying out their life publicly at the next table and I wouldn’t want to put anyone through that. But also, avoiding phone conversations will allow you to be present and to really enjoy your food and surroundings.
IF YOU REALLY CAN’T HANDLE THE THOUGHT OF EATING OUT SOLO…
There are alternatives – although you’re only putting off the inevitable (but if you’re traveling alone for the first time, it’s fine to ease into it).
- If you’re staying in a guesthouse or hostel, look for other solo guests. They may be in the same situation as you and want company.
- If you’re in a hotel, order room service. If you really want to eat in a restaurant, try the one in your hotel – they’re usually full of solo diners. Or ask the concierge if there are any nearby eateries with communal tables.
- Or make a reservation at one of the many new “eat with a local” outfits that are springing up in every city. The largest is EatWith, with meal experiences available in more than 130 countries. I enjoy this approach so much I’ve written an entire article about it here ― it’s a wonderful way to get to know local people along with a real feel for the city you’re in.
As for me, I’m happy to have the time alone: I just treat it like a mini-vacation and do my best to utterly enjoy the experience.
— Originally published on 31 July 2011