Last weekend I shared dinner with people I'd never met before. The restaurant was hip, the reservation list closed a month prior, and my party of one sidled up to the last space at the bar. Not without envious glares from the many couples standing near the door, I might add.
Normally I am a chatty girl, but it's Saturday; it's date night. I am unquestionably the only person dining alone. So, I watch, I listen, and I appreciate.
While alone, I am not alone. According to The Hartman Group and the Food Marketing Institute, 46 percent of adults now dine solo—at home, in the car, over room service, and yes, in restaurants.
The heavily-tattooed bartender comments on the art visible below my right elbow. He brings an amuse-bouche for me to try.
The woman to my right suddenly breaks contact with her date and inquires about my dinner choice. We end up in deep conversation about the intricacies of the neighborhood.
Singles are Socially Acceptable
While once taboo, eating alone has become socially acceptable. In part because technology gives us something to do while we eat (although a book is still good company) and in part because restaurants are becoming more accommodating. No longer are singles relegated to the worst seat in the house.
In Amsterdam, Marina Van Goor opened pop-up restaurant, Eenmaal that only had tables for one. "Eating alone is no longer a social paradigm, but a chance to disconnect,” she said.
TripAdvisor has a how-to guide for restaurants wanting to attract travelers dining alone. They encourage restaurants to be inventive with seating options and learn how to make solo diners feel welcomed. Never ask, "A table for just one?"
Many establishments see solo diners as a flexible way to pack spaces—a filler on a communal bench, the ideal party size for a cozy niche corner, or as in my case, the last seat at the bar. Chefs and owners realize that a great dining experience alone will likely mean you bring friends along the next time. Yes, solo diners have friends too.
Chefs and owners realize that a great dining experience alone will likely mean you bring friends along the next time. Yes, solo diners have friends too.
The restaurant reservation system OpenTable recently revealed that single person reservations have grown nationally by 62 percent. The strongest growth areas are the major metropolitan cities of Dallas, Miami, Denver, New York, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, and Chicago.
Milk the benefits of dining alone
Understandably not everyone is comfortable with dining alone. Some actually have a fear of it, known as solomangarephobia. Not to diminish, but that aside, eating alone at a restaurant comes with a smorgasbord of benefits. And that’s not even counting the fine bottle of wine you don’t have to share.
Active recovery - just as your body needs active recovery after a hard workout, so does your brain after a day of tough critical thinking. The entire purpose of recovery is to allow repair, and dining alone can do that. Grab a book that you’ve been meaning to dive into. Catch up on social media. Or pull the crossword puzzle out of your recycling bin. The only rule? Leave your email for after the meal. This is recovery, after all.
No one to say no - are you wildly excited by the new Thai-Polish-Egyptian mashup that recently opened on the corner, yet no one wants to go with you? Here’s your opportunity to be ground-breaking. Be the early adopter of cuisine and try the squid ravioli with mashed potato sauce. And the juniper salad. Don’t forget the pumpkin-mascarpone-basil cheesecake. Wash it down with a craft cocktail you can barely pronounce. If it’s awesome, you have a story to tell and people to bring along for round two. If it’s awful—well, some stories (and meals) are best left cold.
An inspirational kick - a conversation-less meal is not just good for the soul, it’s good for the writer’s block. Or the artist’s block. It’s simply good for inspiration and creativity. Savor the food. Appreciate the wine. Listen in on the conversations of others and make mental notes. Allow yourself to scan the room and be a (non-creepy) voyeur. Let the experience of solo dining be your muse.
Friends without benefits - even the most social of us need a night off from the heavy stuff. Dining alone lets us be sociable without the genuine effort. You can choose to sit quietly or strike up light chatter with the server or the man at the next table. You will likely never see them again (unless you become an awesome regular), so live it up, embellish your history, and enjoy some newfound friends.
You got to eat - necessity may be the mother of invention, but it can also be, well, a necessity. You have to eat. So instead of hiding out in your hotel eating mediocre room service, standing at your kitchen counter with a to-go container, or scarfing down fast-food from the sanctity of a rental car, find a nice cafe' and treat yourself to a meal. Whether you are on the road for work, or simply home alone, there’s little reason not to get out and enjoy the treats of the city you are in. You may just find the recovery, new favorite meal, or muse you were searching for.
Four days later I find myself again perched on the edge of a barstool in a popular downtown restaurant. Looking around, I notice that the busy bar has no less than four other solo diners attached to it. None of us look lonely.
Sarah Stealey Reed is the editor of Relate. When she's not wandering the world, she's a loud writer of customer experiences, contact centers, and optimistic relationships. Find her on Twitter: @stealeyreed.