Eating out alone
On enjoying your own company and the freeing experience of asking for a table for one
Last Tuesday, I was in Stratford-upon-Avon for the literary festival. My event was at 6.30pm which meant that by eight I’d done my talk, signed books for anybody who wanted one and had a chat with Ray Mears in the writer’s room while trying not to appear completely star struck. (Incidentally he recommended Goshawk Summer to me, which is apparently “everything a nature book should be”. Dad, you know what you’re getting for Father’s Day this year.)
I was staying in a hotel that night which meant I didn’t have to rush off, and was left with most of an evening in Stratford by myself. Earlier in the day I’d scoped out a street with a few restaurants on, so I left the festival venue and went to do one of my favourite things: take myself out for dinner. I ate a burger, read my book and then, afterwards, took what was probably a gratuitous selfie and posted an Instagram Story with a caption essentially saying all of the above in a lot less words.
As seems to almost always be the case with the things that I think “should I even bother posting this?” about, I ended up getting an unusual amount of responses to that story. Some people were saying they also love eating out alone, others were asking for advice on how to do it without feeling awkward. So, I figured perhaps it was worth writing about.
I used to find the thought of doing anything by myself almost excruciatingly embarrassing. A couple of months ago I wrote about how I struggled to make friends when I was younger and the lengths I’d go to to hide not having any: running across the playground pretending to play a game, staying late in the library so nobody saw me walking home alone, inventing friends from other schools I’d supposedly spent the holidays with. Once I did manage to make some (really great!) friends, I felt constantly surprised and thrilled that I had people to spend time with and wanted to maintain the image of being A Person With Friends at all times. Going places alone clearly didn’t support that image.
It was only really out of necessity that I eventually got over that embarrassment. I wanted to do things and didn’t always want to wait for somebody else to do them with. And not being able to find somebody to join felt like a really crap reason to miss out on doing something altogether. In terms of eating out specifically, I started going for solo breakfasts and lunches while doing my university year abroad in Gothenburg. I met lots of people during the first term but they all went home at Christmas and the second term was a lot quieter for me. I didn’t want to stay in my apartment all the time so I got used to wandering around the city by myself, finding new breakfast spots and going for fika with just a book for company. I still would have been mortified by the idea of going out for dinner and asking for a table for one though. Then I did my run around the coast and found myself often alone and always hungry, so I just sort of had to get on with it. And, somewhere along the way, eating out alone has gone from being something I did out of necessity to what feels like the ultimate luxury.
I wholeheartedly recommend taking yourself out for dinner. There’s no compromising. You can go exactly where you want to, no matter how tacky or excessive or boring. No pretending you want to go somewhere cool when really you just want a Nando’s. No wandering around the streets aimlessly because nobody will decide where to go. No having to book three months in advance - you’re much more likely to get a table for one last minute. No silently resenting the person ordering most expensive thing on the menu because you know you’ll end up splitting the bill. None of that weird thing where you apparently can’t all order the same main course even when nobody was planning to share. No pretending you don’t want the last bit of bread when, really, you do. No skipping a starter because nobody else is having one and you don’t want to make them wait. No awkward silences when you realise you’ve run out of things to talk about before dessert. No cringing at how loudly somebody else is eating. No worrying about how messily you’re eating. No getting talked into sharing a dessert when quite obviously you want your own. No getting dragged to the pub afterwards when really you just want to go to bed.
I’m kidding (mostly). I’m not that much of a grinch - most of the time time these minor grievances are a small price to pay for the joy of sharing a meal with people you like/love/care about in some capacity. But, nonetheless, it does feel like a real treat to opt out of them occasionally.
I think that the most important thing about being happy to eat alone is that it means you can do lots of other things too. Day trips, holidays, adventures, work opportunities - nothing’s off limits if you can not only feed yourself but actively enjoy doing so. It’s no surprise it’s a bit intimidating though when eating out is mostly marketed as a very social experience: big groups, carafes of wine, sharing plates, lots of laughing, two forks for one cake. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like a bit of a billy no-mates up against that.
So here are my six steps to being your own best dining partner…