Why dining solo isn’t for everyone, there are those who find it decadent, sophisticated and maybe even a little rock ‘n’ roll. Something a proper grown-up would do.
You can escape others’ demands, forget about being a witty raconteur and immerse yourself in stuffing your face without immediate distraction.
Comedian Dom Joly says: “My favourite thing – no social pressure, enormously relaxing. You can eavesdrop and people watch to your heart’s desire”.
Simon Ritchie, press and public affairs manager, says: “Dining alone is underrated and I think more folk would do it if it weren’t for the stigma of looking weird or pitiable. Try it once and it opens a whole new world”.
Journalist Dani Garavelli has an alternative perspective.
“It’s the only thing I still feel slightly uncomfortable doing alone and I don’t know why,” she says. “If I’m away for work I’ll always find an anonymous diner-type place where I’ll be inconspicuous. I think the main thing is for the staff not to treat you as if dining alone is unusual”.
In a way, solitary eating out is a learned skill, especially here, where it’s less common than in, say, Tokyo or Paris.
You might feel like a Billy Nae Mates the first few times, but there are ways to make it more manageable and eventually, even enjoyable.
We asked our foodie friends for some tips.
TAKE A BOOK
Not comfortable with staring vacantly into space? Then a planned activity is important. Although you might end up replying to work emails, the most obvious option is to scroll through your phone.
“I don’t read the news or social media the day prior to dining, so I have that,” says truffle and caviar merchant James Painter.
However, it can feel more relaxed and cosmopolitan if you read a book, preferably a soft paperback that you don’t have to hold open with one hand while eating. A Kindle might also work, as long as you’re careful not to slosh gravy on it. Some of the people we spoke to will even listen to a podcast, though that doesn’t help with exactly where to put your eyes.
Others take a pen and paper. Artist Hugh MacLeod says: “I did some of my best doodling/artwork while dining alone.”
BAG A GOOD TABLE (OR SPACE AT THE BAR)
Most seasoned solo diners prefer being seated by a window, so they can watch the world go by and don’t have to rely on reading material. Either that, or they covet the counter, for a more casual experience.
“I like sitting at a bar solo, not so much dining at a table,” says wine expert Freya Reinsch. "At a table I feel conscious that I’m taking up too much space relative to what I’ll spend, and I can only read in totally quiet environments. Bar stools are better, especially covered by friendly staff.”
Also, although you wouldn’t want to be placed in the centre of the room, dining alone shouldn’t mean you get the cheap seats by the bogs. Arts journalist Susan Mansfield says of eating out alone: “I like it and have done it quite a bit. Main thing I hope for is the same level of service you get as a couple – not offering the worst table (next to toilets, door, corridor) and saying nothing else is available when it clearly is. All this has happened.”
CHOOSE THE RIGHT VENUE
Photographer Alexander Baxter says of dining solo: “I love it, especially if I can sit at the bar and catch the craic with the team. Lyle’s in London does this perfectly, as does Barra in Berlin and Timberyard. It’s absolutely the measure of a welcoming restaurant – sticking a solo diner away in the corner speaks volumes.”
Also, many people recommend a hotel restaurant. Since they usually welcome plenty of lone business travellers, they’re usually well equipped to deal with them.
As Jen Skipper says: “Hotel restaurants are good for solo dining, as it’s quite common. [I] had a drink or food in The Balmoral a few times on my own and it is great, and good for people watching”. For Christopher Kenmore “excellent wine by the glass” is a must.
DON’T BE SELF CONSCIOUS
You’re not as conspicuous as you think you are. If you are feeling exposed, be like Tricia Fox, co-founder of Mhor Coffee, and channel a character. “In my head I always ask myself what would Virginia Woolf do?” she says. “So it’s a wee bit like a wild literary character play for me.”
Anyway, all those other diners are in their own bubbles. They probably haven’t even noticed you, so use this to your advantage and luxuriate in the people-watching potential.
CHAT TO THE WAITING STAFF (OR DON’T)
Etive Restaurant sommelier patron David Lapsley says: “Some will happily chat for hours. Others can give the impression of ‘please don’t talk’.” To be a top notch front-of-house person you have to be a bit of an empath. Thus, don’t feel you have to chat to your waiter, if you just want some quiet time. Keep the conversation brief, and they’ll read the introverted vibes.
NB: “I like not being asked constantly if I’m waiting for someone,” says The Kilted Yogi, aka Finlay Wilson. Indeed, this is a lot of people’s bugbear. Once is enough.
START WITH LUNCH
When it comes to eating out alone, some find it easier during the day. It’s definitely less intimidating. Content manager Hazel says: “From lunch to late afternoon and even into early evening I enjoy it, but do find it harder the later it gets. Style of place and locations does impact experience a lot.” Food writer Murray Chalmers says: “I see a solo lunch as something to be enjoyed, but would still feel awkward at dinner.” Lunch it is.