At a recent family gathering, the conversation turned to dining, and from there to a common practice of mine: eating alone at restaurants.
My grandmother, who is in her 80s and grew up in the city in the state where they all live, said she would never do it, that it was frowned upon as a girl, and that it still felt strange to her. Other female relatives a generation younger spoke of their reluctance to eat in a place where they believed they would be judged by fellow diners, silently commiserating as a loser. An aunt who sat at a table in a fancy restaurant said she always felt sorry for people eating alone and wondered if they were lonely. “Unless they had a book with them,” she added with a smile.
I’ll be honest: It’s hard for me to wrap my head around all of this, even though history shows that my female relatives’ feelings stem from decades of American practices and prejudices. Although I’ve been with my husband for 18 years, almost half my life, I spend a lot of time eating alone – while traveling for work, grabbing a bite to eat between appointments, or just because I want to. Maybe I have a book with me, maybe not. But a life without eating alone is unthinkable to me.
Today I am in good company. Solo dining has risen considerably according to data collected by the restaurant reservation company OpenTable. The internet is full of proud people proclaim their love of food only and glorify his many virtuesoften over and over in return for the same assumption from my grandmother and aunts: that solo dining is socially unacceptable, something to be feared. (This fear even has a dubious psychological name: solo mangarephobia.)
But the joys of eating alone have been documented since ancient times, and I’m glad it never occurred to me to think of solo dining as anything other than an ordinary act. The history of solo dining, especially for women, hasn’t always been welcoming, and even now there are some best practices I’ve developed to help me get it right. But for me, eating alone in a restaurant is almost meditative, even though I just eat a plate of pasta between meetings.
Eating out alone is a form of self-care, a way to derive immense satisfaction from the experience – the atmosphere, the flavors and textures, the chatter around me. Without a dining companion to entertain, I can sit with my thoughts, watch the world around me, eavesdrop on fellow diners, maybe have a conversation with the bartender when I’m at the bar. I’m starting to remember that I’m not alone at all; I am part of a community of people, and most people, believe it or not, are friendly and interesting. Eating alone, in a paradoxical way, can put me out of my mind.
On a recent solo research trip to San Francisco, I randomly picked a seafood restaurant that was buzzing with activity and took the last seat at the bar. The meal that followed – a dish of octopus and an odd little wine recommended by the bartender – was transcendent, something to savor. I was happy eating it, surrounded by people who smiled as I sat and left me to myself. Not once did I feel out of place.
But maybe I should reconsider that feeling. As I began to delve into the history of solo dining — especially as a woman, not accompanied by a man — I realized that this act I take for granted several times a week is one that previous generations had to fight for. Just over a century ago, it was believed that a woman dining without a man in a restaurant was looking for business, so to speak; she had a bad name, and so was the restaurant that allowed her to do such a thing.
That stigma was relatively new in the 20th century. In the early 19th century, dining together at long tables in restaurants was the norm. After the Civil War, the luxury restaurant was born, and with it the private dining table. Dinners usually came in pairs. “Lone women” were often discouraged or even banned from good restaurants, and so on restaurant historian Jan Whitaker told me that a ‘lonely woman’ didn’t really have to be alone – a group of women without any man was also considered ‘lonely woman’.
A radical exception came in 1868, when the New York restaurant Delmonico’s became the first to serve a group of women unaccompanied by men. Even then it was a planned event organized by a social club for women, no regular policy. Things started to change as women entered the workplace and were almost forced to take on more freedoms. Lunch counters, diners, and establishments designed to make solo diners, especially women, feel more comfortable began popping up, especially in cities. “Since many women started working around World War I, that just had to break down the system,” Whitaker noted.
But even in the 1960s, some restaurants closed off female diners altogether, or only let them in if accompanied by a man. In 1969, Betty Friedan and 15 other women burst into the Oak Room – the legendary restaurant of the lavish Plaza Hotel in New York – with signs with slogans like “Wake up PLAZA! Get on it NOW!” and “The Oak Room is outlawed.” It worked: Four months after the protest, faced with media coverage of the event, the restaurant overturned its no-women policy.
As women slowly gained the freedom to dine alone in public, the fear of being harassed by others – especially men who assumed the women wanted attention – became more acute. The solution was known. “Bringing a book into a restaurant and reading it while eating was just universal,” notes Whitaker. It was a particularly attractive option for women. “Sometimes women just didn’t want to look like they wanted to be insane,” she said.
That has certainly continued. I like to bring a book to a bar, although I find it can be more of a conversation starter than a conversation ending these days. A telephone is a more reliable way to indicate your unavailability.
And using the phone during solo dinners is quite noticeable. Art photographer Nancy Scherl recently released a book called Dining only: In the company of loneliness, featuring decades of her photos of solo diners around the world. “I feel like sometimes the phone becomes a bit of a mainstay for people – that they pull out their cell phones instead of looking at people, or smile at someone sitting next to them, or strike up a conversation with someone who might be sitting across from them. sit them or two tables away,” she said. “It’s nice to break through the barriers and feel like you can say hello, instead of pulling out your cellphone.”
Guilty as charged, yes I like the random restaurant encounter, especially after so many months of severely limited opportunities to chat with strangers. Looking at my phone or reading a book also robs me of the ability to purposefully savor the experience, savor the flavors, be fully present in the moment.
So one of my resolutions for 2023 is to continue perfecting the art of solo dining, bask in the experience whether I’m out on the sidewalk watching the world go by or sitting at a bar eating truffle fries. You don’t have to be afraid of what people think. “When we’re in the position of an observer, we have no idea what people are thinking or feeling,” Scherl told me. “We don’t know if they’re happy or if they’re miserable — a lot of it is hidden.” Instead, I can remember taking hard-won liberties and doing some good for myself as well.
And in my years as an intrepid solo diner, I’ve learned a few tricks.
The best way to start is to sit at the bar, especially in a fancy restaurant. I like to watch the bartender make cocktails, or maybe chat with a fellow diner. You hardly ever need a reservation at the bar, and the relieved look in the host’s eyes when you say “I’ll sit at the bar” in a busy restaurant makes you feel like a saint. Today, bars are designed for dining only.
Some people find it inconvenient to dine alone for fear of taking up space that could be used by two guests, thereby generating more revenue for the restaurant. That’s a very compassionate position, but there are ways around it. For example, try an early dinner, before the restaurant is full. (In my city, that means getting there around 5:30 p.m.; that varies by place.) Or go for lunch, which tends to be less crowded anyway. Be sure to tip generously.
A communal table (or chef’s table) can also be a good option, and offers the added benefit of inviting conversation with other guests. Not all restaurants have them, but they’re especially good options if you’re traveling in another city or country. Call or research the restaurant ahead of time to see if it’s an option.
Of course you have to recognize that practice makes perfect. Bring a book or magazine if you feel more comfortable with it. But know that the more you do it, the less “weird” it will seem. Focus on mindful eating so you can focus on the flavors and presentation. Ask for recommendations from the staff. If you’re at the bar and they’re not too busy, strike up a conversation with the bartender. Some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had while dining out, especially when traveling, have come from recommendations I’ve gotten at bars.
And above all have fun with it. As someone once wisely said to me, “No one thinks of you, because they all think of themselves.” Even if they are thinking about you – who cares? Your solo dinner might inspire someone else to try it.
Alice Wilkinson covers film and culture for cafemadrid. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.
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