You’d wonder why there needs to be yet another article on a topic that’s been done to death. I object to your ‘wondering’.
There can never be enough aids to help someone get through the relatively stressful act of eating alone in a restaurant.
It’s been a few years of solo travelling for me, enough not to have second thoughts when it’s about gearing up for the day with a hefty breakfast or giving the legs a rest during lunchtime, ALONE. But when it comes to dinner, I still get sweaty palms and my anxiety does a rather enthusiastic tango. All of which lands me in the closest Subway or McDonald’s outlet rather than that restaurant with the live band and amazing food.
I’d give the credit of being able to manage breakfast/lunch alone to my sister & bro-in-law and some wonderful servers I’ve met.
Avid travellers – for leisure and business – my sister and BIL often travel alone and go by the mantra: “If you want a hot meal over the cold salad in the room, brave it.”
True words, right?
It’s been a rare breakfast or lunch when I’ve been dumped at a corner table to keep the ‘better spots’ open for others. On lighter days, I’ve even had some of the staff sit down for a chat with me, helping me map the next leg of travel or even suggesting places not known by most travellers. It’s the best way for an introvert to overcome nervousness and talk to strangers.
But there have been instances where the waiter has sniggered at my ‘predicament’, the restaurant staff has sent ill-concealed looks of pity my way or the bunch of friends at the next table have sniggered. It’s disconcerting and can throw you off the exercise that is already challenging.
Luckily, the concept of dining solo is gaining popularity and familiarity so unpleasant experiences are by far, minimal.
Over the years, I’ve developed a system for the times when I eat out alone while travelling. Here’s what I do and what you might want to try the next time the idea of eating out alone takes you to the closest Burger King. Stop… you can win this battle too!
- What is it about eating alone that causes anxiety? Is it the loneliness? Is it the judgement? Is it boredom or any awkwardness? Find the reason for your anxiety to ascertain ways to deal with it.
On realising it was the fear of being judged by other diners that affected me, I started carrying props to keep me occupied through the waiting period and while eating. Now, I use these props only while waiting for the food.
- Prep yourself for an ‘eating alone’ experience – research places you would enjoy eating at. My travel research includes listing local delicacies AND places to eat. This way, I am less stressed about finding a place to eat. From the safety point of view, I am less likely to wander around and land in unsafe places. This method also allows you to avoid the couples-friendly dining places.
- You do not need to head to a fine dine restaurant on day one of the ‘eating alone’ endeavour! Baby steps are important.
- Enjoy breakfast at a coffee shop or breakfast parlour
- Let lunch be a takeaway, enjoyed whilst sprawled on the green of a public garden or seated on the bench of the nearest high street suited to people watching
- For dinner, head to another cafe
- Stock up on handy props that can distract you from anxiety and fear. Mine include:
- a book (hard copy or e-reader)
- phone loaded with games and/or eBooks
- a diary & pen to jot down thoughts
- camera to click food photos
- earphones for some personalised music
- The time between when I place my order and the food arrives is what I have dubbed my ‘connect’ time. This is when I catch up with the messages and emails that need to be addressed immediately. But please don’t attend to calls. If you can be irritated by a loud caller on the next table, the same can be thought about you.
- What’s stopping you from ordering a drink? Alcoholic or non-alcoholic, a filled glass is the best thing to take smoothen those edgy nerves and ease you.
- If you are a food enthusiast, join a food tour. (Ironically for people like you and me) food is the best way to connect with strangers. You will make friends as you feast on local delicacies and learn more about the city you are in.
A German couple I met during one such food tour invited me for drinks at a local pub the next day. The three of us had a lovely time bonding over locally crafted beer, talking about the difference in lifestyles and enjoying a live Scottish band.
- The amount of food I eat depends on my appetite and emotional status. On some days I’m satisfied with just the main course. On other days, I can eat a 5-course meal and still need ice-cream. Well aware of the turmoil that causes the excessive eating, I am not a huge fan of people judging what I eat and the amount. Eating alone gives me the freedom to choose my meal without the added baggage of judgement.
- Eating alone also means you can have those lush waffles three days in a row without anyone cribbing about wanting to try something different! They’re your taste buds and being alone allows you to pamper them.
- One of my biggest concerns when eating out is the inability to finish what’s on my plate. I’ve found that most restaurants are willing to guide you towards food that you can finish, or even provide you half portions. I’ve been lucky enough to be handed the children’s menu by servers.
As a girl in London once told me, “Eating alone is a brave thing to do, even in London. The dessert is a reward to you, don’t skimp on it.”
You can even ask for the leftover food to be packed up – eat it as a snack or hand it over to a homeless person.
- Those fancy looking names on the menu card may look very tempting but if you are a virgin solo eater, stick to the tried and tested till eating alone is a fun event. What if you end up with a portion of food that is unidentifiable? Don’t ever, and I mean ever, be afraid of questioning the server about food and portions when you order. That is your right as a customer.
- For that matter, DO NOT allow the staff to push you into one of those dingy corners where solo travellers are tucked away. Stand your ground – that is your right – and be assertive about being seated at a place of your choice. And you can say NO to being seated with another solo diner.
- Be conscientious when choosing a place to sit. You are a single person. Don’t ask to be seated at a table for 4 especially during peak hours!
- Be gracious to your server and don’t linger at your table and over your food. Respect the time and desire of other people who could/may be seated at your space once you are done. Holding up a table is a huge NO at all times.
- Consider heading out for a meal during off-peak hours. If you’re already tensed about eating alone, then the quest of finding a good place to sit at and having to wait alone for that good seat can get daunting.
At Portree, I waited for a solid 10 minutes till my chosen table at the window was free. Those 10 minutes were the longest ever, as I waited in the foyer next to a coat stand, feeling conspicuous as I shuffled around groups taking their coats or hanging them.
Since then, I’ve made it a point to choose a lesser known – but safe – dining place OR reach early.
- If you’ve gone to a pub that serves food too, then grab a seat at the edge of the bar, facing the door. This allows you to…
- Get a refill if needed
- order food at the bar itself
- grill the bartender for local tips
- people watch
- think about the battle with the fairies that you dreamt about
- People are self-absorbed. Period. Unless you are the richest or the most gorgeous human on planet earth, people will forget about you after the first few minutes.
Unless it’s the group of overgrown girls who insist on smirking and sending pitying glances your way, ‘distressed’ over your ‘lonely’ status or your choice of clothing.
Or it could be self-assured group of seniors who want to know more about you, insist on asking about life in India and depart with statements like: “It feels so good to see a young woman heading out for an adventure. Good luck.”
I’ve experienced both of these instances. While the first left a sour taste in my mouth, since the second incident I’ve chosen to think people who are ‘checking me out’ are jealous of me! Try it out.
- Wear clothes that make you feel good and not self-aware. Why add to your stress by wearing that dress that (you think) makes you look flabby or that pair of ill-fitting trousers. Discomfort takes away from your food experience. So this rule is one that applies for all times.
… I always wear clothes with no waistbands or elastic waistbands when dining out.
- Servers and waiting staff that hover in a bid to rush you through the ordering process can be nerve-wrecking, right? Ask for the menu while you are waiting in queue and decide beforehand what you want to eat. If the menu is available online, peruse and narrow down your choices. This also helps save time.
- Try not to think about all the studies, research and quotes about dining alone not being good for your health. You are a solo traveller and it is absolutely fine to not go company hunting for meals. It also requires a lot of courage to overcome your fears and do something that challenges you. Take your time. You are a winner and you WILL be able to do it.