When you’re traveling solo, breakfast and lunch are pieces of cake (sometimes, alas, literally). And I can do dinner at the Olive Gardens of the world without much of a problem. But when it comes to dinner at great restaurants, the ones I don’t want to miss, the ones that satisfy my foodie soul, I have too often wimped out with a pb&j and reruns of Sex and the City.
I like sharing meals with others, but we all find ourselves with the option of eating solo at some time or other. In my book, Solo Traveler, I devote a whole chapter to the topic, and I’ve come up with some snappy suggestions to make the most of dining alone, including these:
Do lunch. Many great restaurants are open midday. Besides being less expensive, eating solo in the daytime is no big deal. You look like you’re on business. Many others will be solo too. Daylight is just less daunting.
Book right. Use a title if you have one, mention that this meal is a special occasion and ask for a specific table. This might not get you the best seating, but it might keep you from the worst.
Look good. I feel better about most things when I know I’m looking my best. And when you dine alone at a fine restaurant, if you’re noticed you might as well be admired.
Come early. For me, it’s easier to be seated already than to walk into a room full of couples. Entering a festive room alone can be a Moment, whether all eyes are on me or not. I’m working on this, because it’s fun to be a minor star, even for that moment.
Get comfy. It’s easy grabbing a burger when the decor is red and yellow and the host is a clown. But when I want to eat a fine meal, eating outside or facing into the room, for some reason, makes me more comfy. Find your comfort zone.
Don’t accept a lousy table. I’ve sat near busboy stations, swinging doors, and toilets too many times. Now I politely hold out. I was once told that a choice table by the window was a “romantic” table and I said that I was a romantic person and wanted to let the manager know. I got the table.
Sit at the bar. Sushi is easy: I kibbutz with the sushimeisters, or the people at my elbows. If you don’t like raw fish, choose a restaurant with bar seating or a communal table.
Offer to share a table. This is commonplace in some foreign countries. I once sat at a small table with an elderly couple at Fortnum and Mason tea room in London. The man fell asleep in his scones and clotted cream and started snoring. I could barely contain my giggles.
Have something to do. If service is leisurely it can feel awkward between courses. (I do tune in to others’ conversations and enjoy the surroundings, but that can become boring when it’s hours.) When I travel to other countries I carry a language book and use alone dining moments to learn new words. Other options besides reading: pen and paper, techie gadgets, even a small laptop. I don’t talk loudly on a cell. (I do sometimes check my calls, or even pretend to). I wouldn’t knit or file my nails. Or sing. I sometimes do kegels and smile.
Time it right. Fine dining can take an entire evening, but you can finesse that if you prefer. Cutting back a course means a less costly meal and fewer calories. Two courses or several starters might be a compromise. I’ve even ordered dessert to go (skip the sorbets) so I don’t miss a thing except the overpriced coffee.
Connect with your server. The waitstaff at good restaurants is especially attentive to solo diners, especially if you smile and chat a bit. I’ve conversed better and laughed more with some servers than most of my dinner companions.
Wear my favorite prop: sunglasses. When I’m behind cool shades I figure people wonder who I am, not why I’m by myself. Plus, I’m able to watch things without others realizing it. I have several pairs.
Dining solo is not just about the eating. It’s a head game. You can focus on all senses without distraction. You have the freedom to appreciate the polished silver, flirt with the server, plan a new business, or make eye contact with a stranger across the room. You have the time to imagine, and the power to make others imagine about you.
I still enjoy dining with (some) others more than eating solo. I like sharing food and debating if a flavor is fennel or anise. But I’ve learned to embrace dining by myself, following my own advice. I can appreciate that I’m doing something that many can’t, and that makes me feel great. And I’m delighted when I don’t miss out eating at special restaurants.
And observing the faces and listening to the conversations of my fellow diners, I suspect more than a few of them wish they could switch places with me.