One is the loneliest number, as Three Dog Night once said. When it comes to eating out, far too many people seem to believe them.
But I don’t buy that. As someone who dines alone quite regularly, I can tell you that it is not the miserable, lonely experience that those looking on with pity think it is.
Admittedly, generally I go for a solitary meal because I’m too disorganised to find if any friends want to come, but the point remains. I honestly enjoy eating alone, and once people get over the initial awkwardness, I think most who try it feel the same.
For those of you who haven’t, though, I can understand if you need a little nudging. So here are my four top reasons for going solo. Consider this me pushing.
1. Slipping into the corner
The whole no booking thing has got pretty big. Long lines that snake out doors, or giving your number and hoping the phone will call are just a part of modern dining. And it can sometimes be a pain.
It is a simple fact, though, that one person is smaller than four.
If there is just one little seat tucked in the corner, the solo diner can get in. There’s a gap between parties at the bar? The solo diner can take that stool without issue. That’s not to say that you never have to line up alone, but my lack of a partner has seen me skip the queue on countless occasions. Being alone is better than any secret handshake.
2. Making friends
More and more restaurants are having open kitchens these days, often with a row of high stools facing it. These are, without question, the best seats in the house regardless of how many diners in your party, but even more for the lone wolf. Largely this is because of the fun of watching the dishes getting made, the strange dance of the professional kitchen.
But more than that, you get to chat to the chefs. Not a constant dialogue, of course, because they have things to do, but enough to build a little more of a relationship than you do normally. A few words during service lulls, or maybe a quick explanation of what they are doing when you are watching something intently. It’s not to say they don’t do the same with larger groups who sit at the kitchen, but I’ve always found they have that touch more time for the loners.
It’s the same deal with waiters. There are those few extra words of explanation, or the nudging towards a particular wine. Service staff understand that it’s a special type of person that dines by themselves, and usually one that is actively interested. So you do often get the special attention, the little bonuses. It’s just a matter of making friends.
3. Listening in
Everyone is a sticky beak. The continued success of gossip magazines and reality television show that there are few things we like more than knowing what other people are up to.
Restaurants are one of the prime places to indulge in this pastime live. Where else do you get sit so close to people while they have in depth conversations with family and lovers?
People watching and eavesdropping are core entertainments for the solo diner, from picking out the nervous first date at the next table to the multigenerational group in the back celebrating a major birthday. Without the distraction of dining companions you can give all your attention to these others, working out exactly what is going on as you peer surreptitiously over your glass.
The real prize, though, is the couple arguing, squabbling in whispers over their entrees. There is nothing that fills the gaps between courses like a little schadenfreude.
Some people think being nosy like that as a bit rude, so keep it discreet. But I wouldn’t worry too much, because:
4. No judgement
When dining with a partner or friends, you usually don’t want to disgrace yourself. Appearing as a slob or a glutton is generally looked down upon, and so most of us will self-censor our behaviour to not embarrass our companions.
But when alone, there’s no-one to embarrass but yourself. Sure, there are other people in the restaurant, but they probably aren’t paying attention to you, and even if they do, it’s not like you’re ever going to see them again. So indulge a little.
Loved the sauce? Wipe it up with your finger. Can’t decide between those two desserts? What the hell, have them both! Who’s going to care?
I’m not talking about starting a food fight, or getting horrifically drunk and breaking things (though an extra glass or two is fine, if you’re not driving), but dining alone frees you up for those little, private sins. It allows you to literally suck the marrow out of your dining experience.
All of this isn’t to say that dining alone doesn’t have problems. I have had times when I’ve been plonked in the corner of a near empty room and been nearly forgotten about, which countered both points 2 and 3. Any delay between courses can be amplified if you have no-one to talk to. And if, like me, you want to taste as many dishes as possible, solo dining can result in sprawling and expensive multicourse experiences, far beyond what is necessary.
But these are small points compared to the fun that you can have. Ignore the people that think it is strange to not rely on the social crutch of company. Next time you feel like a night on the town do it alone. Skip the queues, sidle up to the bar, and indulge without regret.
It’s (almost) the most fun you can have by yourself.