I took myself out to dinner last week. Alone. I’d had a kinda stressful day, I didn’t want to go straight home, and I wanted some time alone but not on my own. If that makes any kind of sense.
I ordered, and sipped my wine, but I’d forgotten to bring a book with me so I had to resort to performing The Millennial Bow.
Or, as it’s more commonly known, staring at your phone for lack of anything better to do.
But then looking down at my phone started to feel a bit weird. I imagined people looking at me and thinking ‘Jesus, people today. They’re never not on the internet.’ So I put it aside and just…sat. Drank my wine. Watched the wait staff bustle back and forth between the tables, watched the chefs in the open kitchen.
And it didn’t feel weird or uncomfortable. It felt fine. Normal.
Granted, I’d been to this restaurant before, so I knew what to expect. I felt comfortable in my surroundings. But I still had the same thoughts running through my head as I sat there, alone in a restaurant on a Friday night, telling me how a few years ago I would not have been able to do this.
That I would not have felt brave enough to enjoy myself. Because anyone can walk into a restaurant and ask for a table for one. But enjoying the experience, that’s something totally different altogether.
I don’t always feel this comfortable eating alone. When I travel, invariably on my own, I sometimes dread having to find somewhere to eat by myself. Take my first night in Copenhagen, for example. But I’ve definitely got better at taking up more space, of knowing I am as entitled as anyone else to a table in a restaurant. That I can eat in restaurants alone and not feel bad about myself. That I don’t always need someone by my side.
But, like I said, I wasn’t always as comfortable with rocking up to a restaurant sans dining partner.
But, then, girl’s gotta eat, right? There’s something really disheartening about visiting an amazing destination, then resorting to a sad 7/11 sandwich in your hotel room because you just can’t bring yourself to go it alone.
And I’ve actually had some brilliant experiences dining alone, both in the UK and abroad.
In York, as I sat with a glass of red at a restaurant overlooking the river, my server and I spent ten minutes discussing the book I was reading and she admitted that she, too, also liked to take herself out to dinner alone. We chatted, and she was the first person I’d spoken to properly all day, and that meant more than she probably knew.
In Porto, I was determined not to be get shoved in the kind of seat that solo diners invariably find themselves in: somewhere at the back, or next to the till, or (worse, still) next to the toilets. Nope. I waited it out for a table outside next to the river, and watched the sun set behind the Dom Luis bridge standing tall in the distance.
And, in London, I found a Vietnamese restaurant near Brick Lane that I never took any of my friends to. That was for me. My after work treat, where I’d order a big bowl of comforting, warming pho and read until my pot of green tea grew cool, and (full of noodle soup) I’d make my way home and crawl into bed, full and happy.
But all of this? It took me a long time. It took me a while to realise that, actually, no-one gives a shit about you. No-one is looking at you with pity when you take your seat at your table by yourself. In fact, some of them might even be a little envious. I mean, how often do we all complain that we don’t get enough time to ourselves?
And if they do pity you. If you do get a look thrown your way from a table of friends or a couple dining together, it says an awful lot more about them than it does about you.
So, if you’re off on your solo travels, or you’re just looking to stretch those solo dining muscles at home, here’s how to eat in restaurants alone with a bunch of confidence, so you can actually enjoy the experience. You deserve it.
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I’m not a picky person. Well, most of the time. But when it comes to finding restaurants to eat in by myself I’m the pickiest person ever. You’ll be picky too, when you’ve been shown to a table and immediately regretted your decision too many times.
The best restaurants to eat in alone are not too busy but not too quiet either, so try to determine rush hour before you rock up out of the blue. Too busy and there’s a chance you’ll feel overwhelmed, and an even bigger chance of being the all-too-often forgotten solo diner, nursing a glass of wine for an hour because the waiter’s failed to notice you amongst the couples and families.
Too quiet and you’ll feel like you’re in an art gallery; every noise you make immediately turning you into the centre of attention. The perfect place is bustling with background noise. You can hear yourself think but you can’t hear the people at the next table chewing their food.
Other things to look out for:
Communal tables – great if you’re not ready to ask for a table for one yet. Also a great way to strike up conversation with someone if you’re up for meeting strangers
Ordering at the counter/bar – this usually signifies a laid-back vibe that can be good for solo diners and take the pressure off the whole experience, but leave a scarf or book to save your table, not your bag
Tablecloths – they make a restaurant more formal, which can feel uncomfortable, but also who can trust themselves to not spill sauce all over the white linen? NOT ME
Bars – busy bars are good for drinks and blending into the crowd. Busy bars are not the most welcoming places for solo diners. Restaurants with bars, on the other hand? Great if you’re eating alone. Less formal than a table, and you’ll never be without a drink
Fake it ’til you make it
The first time I went to Amsterdam, it was a beautiful summer’s evening and I could think of nothing better than sitting outside a restaurant, reading a book, and watching the world go by while I tucked into some traditional Dutch food. Trouble was, this was one of my first solo travel trips. My bravery was, well, nowhere to be seen.
So I faked it. I found a restaurant, walked straight to the bar, indicated that I’d be sitting outside and asked if a menu could be brought over, then turned straight back around and found a table. I wasn’t bolshy about it, but I also wasn’t a shrinking violet. Inside I was nervous, but on the outside it looked like I knew exactly what I was doing.
Ha. I did not know exactly what I was doing. But no-one’s going to think you belong if you don’t act like you belong.
Not ready to try eating dinner out alone yet? No problem. You can always test the waters by taking yourself out for coffee or lunch in a little cafe. For some reason, it seems to be a bit more socially acceptable to dine solo during the day, so ease yourself in with a small meal (or huge, no judgement here!) at your favourite local lunch spot.
Then, when you’re feeling more confident, you can try a chilled-out dinner spot, and you’ll be striding into an unfamiliar restaurants by yourself abroad in no time.
Read a book, not your phone
I’ve started to get better at not immediately reaching for my book or my phone as soon as I’ve sat down, and decided to take more of interest in watching people come and go, letting my mind wander. But, if I’m ever at a loss as to what to do with my hands, I always feel so much more comfortable reading a book than looking at my phone.
If I’m on my phone, I’m looking at what other people are doing, and for me that’s not what going out to eat alone is about. For me it’s about taking some time for myself and not endlessly scrolling through other people’s lives. With a book, you’re immediately transported into another world, but there’s no FOMO, no ‘WHY IS EVERYONE HANGING OUT WITHOUT ME’ because, well, you know how books work.
The notebook trick
I’ve actually only done this once, in a situation where I felt super, SUPER uncomfortable and reading a book wasn’t helping at all. I was in a restaurant that, once I’d been seated at a table, I immediately regretted choosing. It was far too loud, the tables were far too close together, the service was terrible, and it just wasn’t very solo-diner friendly.
So I reached into my bag, not for another book, but for my notepad. No-one else had a notepad. With it came a pen, and a few scribbles later (I brainstormed some blog post ideas) I was feeling much better. Not because I’d thought up some awesome blog post ideas (although that helped too) but because it made me feel a little bit, shall we say, important.
I could have been a travel writer jotting down the restaurant’s details to include in my next guide to London, a novelist doing research for a book, a business woman, a mystery diner. No-one knew. But it made me feel like I had a purpose other than just eating, and I would happily do it again if I needed to.
Change your mindset
This is the biggie, to be honest. Because no amount of preparation or props will help you enjoy eating alone if your approach to it doesn’t change. Sure, at first you’ll just want to order, eat, and hot-foot it back home, or to your hotel room, as soon as possible. But as your confidence grows, you might even begin to enjoy it.
And that, I think, is the goal here. To feel less like you’re eating alone because no-one was available to join you, and more like you’re eating alone because you deserve to do nice things for yourself, by yourself. You deserve to order a large glass of red and read a book and not have anyone ask if they can nick one of your chips.
Sometimes when I travel alone I still get freaked out when I walk into a restaurant by myself. Sometimes a sad sandwich from a 7/11 actually seems appealing when faced with the prospect of another evening with nothing but a novel for company.
But, more often than not, I find somewhere nice and I order some wine and I make it feel like a treat rather than a necessity. And I almost always come away feeling a little braver than I felt before.