In youth, we learn the value of shared meals—dinnertime is synonymous with family and coming together with loved ones at the end of the day. Children are encouraged to be independent, but not taught how to sit at a table alone. As adults, dining out alone intentionally is an experiment. A challenge to simply exist in our aloneness. A discipline to not prescribe ourselves technology to ward off feelings of unease. Long-established social systems have caused most of us to consider asking the hostess for a ‘table for one’ to be a mountainous feat requiring courage, confidence, and a stable paycheck. In our homes, with the comfort of familiarity and anonymity, idly listening to records while we cook for ourselves seems relaxing, but in a restaurant, where strangers can observe our vulnerability from every angle, we perceive loneliness. After all, restaurants are designed to be social environments.
The last time I took myself out to dinner was on a cool summer evening in Chicago three months ago. Having never been to the city, I decide the only thing I want to do on my overnight trip is eat good food and listen to some blues. Roaming the streets without a companion, I take my time appraising options, in search of a bar top flanked by bustling city-folk and excited barmen. At The Girl And The Goat, a restaurant recommended by a friend, patrons spill onto the sidewalk. It feels just right with its tall ceilings, molten-chocolate curved bar, and open kitchen. I consult exactly no one on this decision. With a group, you wait an hour to be seated. Alone, you take your pick at any available bar stool.
From the left edge of the counter, I take in the bustling sight of co-workers and birthday dinners in one sweeping glance, and feel the sweaty-palm anxiety of being female, alone, and exposed. My only protection is the newest edition of Travel & Leisure Magazine that rests on top of my belongings—just in case. I wave down my waiter for a cocktail, a stiff one in a tall glass. As rarely as I nurture my independence by taking myself out to a nice dinner, even more rarely do I indulge in a drink alone. But at this bar in a foreign city, I can be anyone I want to be.
The restaurant menu is all share plates: small, large, specials. Portions for one, there are none. As I taste the first and second dish—a goat carpaccio with smoked trout roe and olive-maple vinaigrette, and wood-grilled broccoli with a smoky cheese and spiced crisps—a solo diner seated on a stool near me inhales a truffle cheese for dessert. Together, without words, we indulge in our respective vices. Our presence alone is enough to acknowledge the other. I wash down bite after bite with my strong beverage until neither a speck nor a drop remains. With a day of travel behind me and anything ahead, I feel strong and self-sufficient.
Without company, we taste more fully and our memory lingers longer. It’s been over a year since my first and only trip to London, and I’ve since forgotten the name of the hotel I stayed at and the pubs I stopped in. I’ve forgotten my reactions to the famous artworks at the Tate Modern, and the bus route I took to get there. But no matter where I am, each time I catch a whiff of crimini mushrooms I am transported to that café tucked in a cobblestone alley, where the sky striped the front table on a sunny day, where breakfast included a table-setting for one. The treasure of this moment has nothing to do with travel and entirely to do with appreciating it in solitude. The pleasure of a partner would enrich this memory for different reasons entirely—perhaps the name of the restaurant would return to me, or I would be richer for time well spent in thoughtful conversation. But I certainly wouldn’t carry with me the sweet memory of crisp, juicy ‘shrooms decorated with fried cubes of salty halloumi and fresh herbs. Satisfaction sweeps through me at the thought of it.
In modern times, to protect our egos, we’ve become accustomed to ordering delivery and eating on the couch: a meal that is sustenance over pleasure. I lament the days when being alone with only our appetites also granted us freedom from a wired, snapped, two-tap world. Maybe that’s why I cherish a spot at the bar top—a resting period from the cacophony.
Through a conversational survey of friends in New York, I mostly found people aged thirty and above to be the ones who regularly partake in solo dinner excursions, finding comfort and relaxation in the activity. Younger friends however, felt less excited and more anxious at the prospect of such an indulgence. My sister argues that the best time to go out to dinner alone is on a Friday night at a restaurant where you already know the menu, an adult nightcap to the work week. Return often so the bar staff know your name, and you’ll begin to look forward to feeling at home away from home. The older I get, the more frequently I find myself passing this wisdom on.
Young or old, single or partnered, hungry or not, we can all use more self-indulgence in our lives. Once we move beyond the fear of sitting down alone, it’s easy to find this: if you are ravenous, you can eat as quickly as you like; if you are thirsty, you need neither company nor permission to order a second or a third round; if you are craving dessert (which you most certainly should be) you order a chocolate ganache for one and clean the plate. That feeling of satisfaction from not having to fight over that last delightful bite sticks with you for a long time and makes picking up the tab worth it every time.