Every New Year’s Eve half the German population howls in laughter as the well-known sketch ‘Dinner for One’ is broadcast for the millionth time. In the sketch, Miss Sophie celebrates her 90th birthday at a table laid for five people, but only she attends. She has outlived her four best friends but nevertheless toasts each of her absent friends at each course. Meanwhile, her butler James, already half-cut at the beginning, plays the part of each deceased guest and drinks the wine on their behalf. He gets progressively drunker and hilarity ensues. Beneath the silliness, as with all effective comedy, there’s an undercurrent of pathos: seeing Miss Sophie dine alone with her imaginary departed friends evokes a degree of sympathy. Equally, she seems to be enjoying herself and what’s wrong with that?
In ‘Dinner for One’ though, Miss Sophie dines in privacy, safe from the judgemental eyes of others. What about dining alone in public? For many years solo diners have been an object of pity. Smug groups and couples would nudge each other, snigger, draw their own conclusions about the loner on table 5. Who is this jilted lover, this Billy-No-Mates, this ostracised misfit dining by themselves? There’s an assumption that they must be socially inept or possibly even electronically tagged.
I am no stranger to the solo experience. It all started for me when I finished university. I had saved a bit of money and went inter-railing around Europe. There’s nothing quite like travelling on your lonesome: you’re left entirely to your own devices with no need to compromise with anyone. If there’s a particular museum, historic site or show you want to see, you can just go. You’re footloose and fancy-free. But what do you do at mealtimes? Let’s say you’ve travelled to one of the great cities of Europe – Prague, Rome, Amsterdam – you can’t go all that way without trying the local food in a restaurant.
It took a bit of getting used to, I’ll be honest, but I soon came to realise I wasn’t alone in dining alone. According to research in the US a couple of years ago, 46% of dining experiences are done alone (though presumably this statistic includes dining at home). Just from personal observation, I’m seeing more and more people dining out by themselves, and rightly so.
This missive does not try to argue that solo dining is better than dining with others. There is a lot to be said for breaking bread with friends, family or loved ones. Rather, this aims to argue that solo dining should be considered on an equal footing by diners and restaurateurs alike. Here’s why:
Life’s too short not to treat yourself
We all have to eat. Without intake of protein, carbs, fibre, vitamins, essential fats and nutrients, we’d be brown bread. But for a civilised human being who finds him/herself at a loose end after a rough week, does it have to be McDonalds, a bag of cod and chips or a panini at Caffe Nero? It’s funny, isn’t it, how people never really bat an eyelid when customers grab a quick bite to eat in a fast food joint or coffee shop, but what about a proper restaurant? You know, one with tablecloths?
In the first series of Twin Peaks, the insightful Agent Cooper dispenses this crucial piece of advice: “every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt in a men’s store, a cat nap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot, black coffee.”
Why not a meal out, prepared by skilled cooks and served to you by trained hospitality staff?
Life is too depressing, too hideous, too frigging short not to treat oneself once in a while.
50 shades of solitude
In this ‘always on’ world we need to be able to disconnect. The relentless email traffic essentially comes down to one of two things: either you being chased for something or you chasing someone else. Apart from a toilet cubicle or the shower, when else do we get to enjoy a bit of ‘me time’? Some people say dining alone is anti-social but you’ve been surrounded by people all week. You’ve put in the social time already. There’s nothing anti-social about enjoying your own company after a week of KPIs, colleagues and commotion.
This is solitude – i.e. the joy of being alone, rather than loneliness. And it comes in various shades. At the most misanthropic end of the spectrum is complete isolation. If you want this order room service, a Deliveroo to your flat or have a picnic in the Faroe Islands if you must.
But a restaurant also has much to offer for those seeking solitude. If you want a quiet meal to yourself there’s always the safety net of a book to read, a newspaper or your phone. Say what you want about mobile phones stifling social development (there are valid arguments) but the advent of the smartphone has been a saviour for the solo diner. You can catch up on the news, book transatlantic flights and edit your photos between mouthfuls of burrata.
Pro-tip: ask for a quiet table in a discreet corner if you feel self-conscious. You can enjoy your food whilst staring at others. The joke’s on them, tee-hee! From your vantage point you can observe: on table 3 there’s the couple on the brink of divorce; on table 8 there are the parents despairing at their unruly kids with tagliatelle in their hair; on table 15 there are two colleagues ostensibly sharing gossip but are really competing with each other for the top job. Know this: you are having a better time than they are.
Even for the lone diner there’s human interaction to be had if you want it. Most waiting staff these days are trained to give particular attention to solo diners. Some are better at it than others, to be fair, but for the most part I’ve had very positive experiences in recent years – you really can engage with servers about the food, the wine, and so on, or even just rant about Brexit. Patronise a place regularly and the staff will get to know you anyway. (Don’t, however, abuse your regular status by talking at staff when they’re clearly busy).
Treat yourself to a proper meal out, all by yourself. You may be pleasantly surprised and the restaurant will welcome your custom
Choosing to dine alone may seem to be the natural preserve of the introvert, but it offers opportunities for the more forthcoming too. Other solo diners will be there for the same reason as you – the food – so there’s a commonality of purpose which can be an ice-breaker for conversation. Kitchen tables at places like Bubbledogs in Fitzrovia or Nobelhart in Berlin are perfect for meeting other foodie lone wolves (if you want to of course – if you get an unwelcome approach just eat a garlic clove and tell them to naff off). Heck, there are all kinds of apps too that allow you to meet up with other gourmands, from EatWith to Airbnb’s ‘experiences’, if such things are your cup of tea. What some people see as an anti-social experience can actually be the precise opposite.
It has become more socially acceptable
I’ll admit the first time I walked into a restaurant in France and shyly explained to the maitre d’ “en fait, je suis tout seul”, there was a slight sense of shame. Somewhere along the way I had failed in life. But France is a special case. This is a country that lives and breathes the romantic ideal, where extra-marital affairs are de rigeur, so a solo diner doesn’t quite fit with the ‘coupley’ image it tries to maintain. There could also be a simpler, economic reason for this – why let a solo diner hog a whole table when two covers can generate twice as much revenue?
But that’s all changing. There’s less stigma these days. Indeed, restaurants are now being designed to accommodate solo diners, such as the magnificent dining counters at Lina Stores, Bao, Sabor, Barrafina or Le Comptoir Robuchon (pictured above) to name but a few.
Eenmaal in Amsterdam was an early adopter, way back in 2013. It has sadly closed since but the idea was revolutionary: a restaurant where every table was a solo table (though fellow diners could ‘bond’ over an introductory cocktail together, if they chose to do so).
Most online booking systems have an option for solo diners too. But there’s admittedly still some way to go, especially in Paris where many restaurants still only have a party of 2 as the default option. (There’s an easy way round that though: book for 2 but turn up with an excuse as to why your companion can’t make it – only the most egregious maitre d’ will turn you away at the threshold).
It’s the ultimate compliment for a restaurant
When you go to a restaurant alone you obviously haven’t gone for the scintillating conversation. It’s the food and, perhaps, a specific chef. That, in itself, is a massive compliment. You and the food are simpatico with no third wheel cramping your style. In many ways it’s the purest form of epicurean pleasure.
It mitigates disappointment
Whether life has just got more frantic, or whether Facebook’s ‘Maybe Attending’ option has legitimised flaking, we live in a non-committal age. We’ve all been in a situation where we were looking forward to some social event and then your companion cancels on you at short notice. There will be an excuse of course, ranging from an unexpected bout of Winter Vomiting to suddenly realising half way on the Bakerloo Line that they left the iron on. They promise to reschedule but a new window in the diary never materialises – by which point that soft launch, that pop up, that time-limited special menu you really wanted to try has already whooshed past like one of Douglas Adams’ deadlines.
Do we have to do everything joined at the hip? Don’t wait for the Chronically Unavailable to find time to join you. To avoid the disappointment of missing something you really want to do, just go alone. What do you have to lose? What’s stopping you?
Or, God forbid, you fall victim to the latest 21st century dating trend. Forget being ghosted, these days you risk being ghouled, poltergeisted, gazeboed, beer-battered, dandelioned, hand-dived, or even worse, fandangoed. To avoid this just don’t ‘date’ in the first place. You might as well just embrace the new concept of “self-partnering” and that applies to dining too.
Unless you’re Morrissey, you can’t be disappointed by yourself. The only thing that can disappoint you is the restaurant itself (which, if you do your due diligence first, is unlikely to happen).
So the next time you find yourself on a business trip in a town where you don’t know a soul, or you’re simply at a loose end and you want to eat something more special than a soggy Uber Eats, just bear the points above in mind. Treat yourself to a proper meal out, all by yourself. You may be pleasantly surprised and the restaurant will welcome your custom.
Photo of Le Comptoir Robuchon by J A Smith; all other photos within this article have been licensed for use by Adobe.