Table for One: 5 Secrets to Dining Alone

Jul 31, 2018

I stood outside the revolving door at the corner of 52nd Street and Lexington in New York City and took a deep breath. This was the Manhattan outpost of my favorite Parisian restaurant, Le Relais de Venise L’Entrecote. I had been there once before with friends but was now heading in for the first time—alone.

Of course, I had eaten by myself before, but only at grab-and-go spots where it seemed socially acceptable. A table for one a sit-down restaurant in the middle of a bustling metropolis just seemed, well, sad.

I prepared excuses for (what I thought would be) the inevitable questions about why no one was joining me: “My friend and I miscommunicated about the timing,” or worse still, “I’m on a business trip.”

I walked in, rehearsing in my head how confidently I was going to tell the hostess I was a party of one. But when she asked, a deflated “just me” came out instead.

I followed her, hoping she’d hide me in a corner. But no luck: She gave me the centermost seat in the house. I scooted into the booth-side of the table, but placed my jacket on the chair facing me. Maybe people would think I had a dining buddy who'd stepped away.

Mercifully, there’s only one thing—steak frites—on the menu, so I didn’t have to interact much with the wait staff or fear too many judgmental questions. Still, I'd brought a folder of work with me, thinking it would make me look like I was on a business trip. You know. Just in case. 

I buried my head in the papers as another diner entered—also alone. I was sure he was waiting to meet someone, so I kept my head down. He was seated a couple tables from me.

A few minutes later, another woman made an entrance and immediately ordered a drink, making clear that she was there alone, too.

Slowly, I lifted my head and realized that my entire row was filled with solo diners. In fact, there were more of us than people in groups! Quickly, I straightened up. And somehow—maybe because I could finally look around and really absorb the atmosphere—I'd swear my meal tasted even better.

Since that experience at home several years ago, I’ve become a proud solo diner—and solo traveler—in places as far-flung as Patagonia, Australia, Scandinavia and the Middle East. And each time I realized that the only person who had any impact on how much I enjoyed each meal was me.

But if you’re as nervous about your first time as I was, here are five tricks to ease you in:

1. Start slow: Join a Meetup meal

If entering a restaurant alone seems too much, first try dining with strangers. In cities around the globe, Meetup hosts events for people to bond over everything from cheap eats to gourmet feasts.

Once, when I was craving some Taiwanese stinky tofu, I trekked out to Flushing’s Chinatown for a Meetup billed as a “Food Challenge” to try thousand-year-old egg and my beloved tofu. And when I wanted to try soul food at the famous Red Rooster in Harlem, I found a Meetup geared toward people my age. 

While the app makes it easy to eat your way around the world, you can also check out local hostels and other organizations for dining events. During a Thanksgiving week trip to Ecuador, for example, both a hostel and an expat group were hosting meals for Americans away from home.

2. Grab a bar seat

When I was in Chicago last summer, I decided to have a bite in the iconic lobby at the Palmer House after my massage in the spa. The tables were packed, so I asked for a seat at the bar. I ordered and looked around to admire the scene under the famed frescoed ceiling.

“Where are you from?” I heard from behind me as my head was cranked up toward the art. That single line led to an hourslong conversation with one of my bar neighbors. And the cast of characters in the hotel ended up providing great fodder throughout our meal. In fact, when I had to leave, I felt bad cutting the conversation short.

3. Chat up the staff

While I was visiting Rio de Janeiro, trying churrascaria seemed like a requirement. But faced with such an interactive style of eating (the staff bring around freshly grilled cuts of meat until you indicate you’re done), I was more hesitant than usual.

Still, I made a reservation at Churrascaria Palace through my hotel concierge and headed over. Before I'd even crossed the street, the hostess came out to the sidewalk to welcome me in. The waiters were so friendly and entertaining, even taking selfies with me mid-meal so I could capture the experience, like anyone else in a group would have. 

4. Put away your phone

Of course, the easiest approach is to stay glued to your cell phone. But you'd be missing out on half the dining experience.

During a trip to Patagonia, I decided to splurge one night on a steak dinner. At first, I was so thrilled the restaurant had free Wi-Fi that I caught up on my email. But by the point I was browsing social media with no real intention, I forced myself to set my phone down.

I was so focused on my meal that it actually broke my concentration when the woman next to me said, “New York?” I looked down at myself and realized I was wearing a New York City Marathon sweatshirt.

Turns out she and her travel companion were both runners, too, and we chatted about training and races on our bucket lists. I ended that meal with two new Facebook friends and people to run with next time I'm in France!

5. Dine confidently

While the tips above help you turn a solo dining adventure into a social activity, what's most important is to simply not be self-conscious about entering a restaurant alone.

In fact, a recent study found that 46% of all adult meals are eaten solo. So during the occasional confidence lapse, I tell myself I'm simply being trendy. And now, I hope, the same will go for you.

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