Clare Thorp advocates the pure unadulterated pleasure of nobody nabbing your chips...
Does the thought of saying, ‘Table for one, please’ bring you out in a cold sweat? If so, sounds like you’re yet to discover the joys of solo dining. You wouldn’t be alone, as new research found that a third of us find dining by ourselves intimidating. Yet despite our fears, eating by ourselves is becoming increasingly common.
According to a recent Wellbeing Index, 29% of us eat alone most or all of the time – an increase from 26% six months earlier; though that figure largely reflects the solo eating we do in our homes (lemon curd on crumpets for dinner, anyone?). Increasingly, however, we’re also choosing to go solo when we eat out. Research by Open Table found that single restaurant reservations jumped 160% between 2014 and 2018.
In South Korea, dining alone has become such a trend they’ve invented a name for it – . Over in Seoul it’s something to celebrate – and with the #solodining hashtag having over 15,000 posts on Instagram, it looks as though that feeling may be spreading here.
Although not everyone is embracing the idea of eating alone. Health experts argue that the increase in people eating alone is a concern, flagging up research that links solo dining to depression, diabetes and high-blood pressure, although on the upside others point to a rise in food-sharing initiatives which bring people together to eat and the benefits of communal dining.
But we all know there’s a huge difference in eating alone because you have no choice, and actively choosing to go solo. And while it’s true that sharing a meal with people you love is one of life’s greatest pleasures, it’s also the case that taking yourself out for a nice meal is one of the most underrated ones. For me, it beats the hell out of bath bombs as a form of self care.
There are obvious advantages. Firstly, you can go wherever you want, at whatever time you want. There’s no worrying whether everyone else will like the menu, or if there’s enough options for your veggie friends. You can just go where your cravings take you. I’ve ducked out of the rain to slurp ramen at 4pm (without worrying about splattering broth all over my dining companion), worked my way through three courses of pasta (no dining companion, no judgement) at the counter of a fancy Italian restaurant on a Wednesday lunchtime and ordered a whole baked Camembert (‘serves two’ …as if) for dinner.
When you’re solo you can often get a seat at places otherwise impossible to score a table at. I’ve leapfrogged my way to a solitary seat at the bar while groups stand shivering by the door. That’s something restaurants are also doing more of now – having casual, bar-style seating that makes turning up on your own feel a lot less like a big deal.
London’s Taiwanese restaurant Xu has gone one further with a cosy booth made just for one. In Japan, they’ve really gone all out on the concept with one chain, Ichirin, serving diners in solo booths through bamboo curtains, so you don’t even see a waiter, let alone another diner. They call it ‘low-interaction’ dining. While I quite like the idea of a steaming bowl of noodles suddenly appearing in front of me, being sealed off in an office-like booth takes away half the fun. After all, one of the best things about eating out alone is the people watching.
Though the real pleasure of dining solo is, I think, an under-appreciated one. It’s the simple act of having someone carefully prepare a meal for you, place it down in front of you, ask you how it is and take the dishes away afterwards. In short, have someone feed you. And someone else do the washing up. It’s alarming how infrequently that can happen if you’re single or live on your own (and your friends aren’t in the habit of throwing dinner parties) and how lovely it can feel when it does.
If you’re worried what other people think, don’t. When was the last time you saw a woman sat on her own, eating a delicious plate of food, reading a book, and thought anything other than ‘that looks like a bloody good time’? There’s nothing pathetic about going for a meal on your own. After all, it’s a date with someone you love. Plus, there’s no one trying to steal your chips.
Five ways you’ve got this…
Sit at the bar: If the thought of sitting opposite an empty chair bothers you, go to a restaurant where you can sit at the bar or counter. Or ask for a seat at the window, where you can watch the world go by.
Take a prop: No, not your phone. A book or a magazine will help you feel more comfortable – though staring into space is completely acceptable.
Talk to people: The waiter. The bartender. Other diners. Being alone doesn’t mean you can’t engage with others.
Enjoy your food: Like, really enjoy it. Dining solo gives you the chance to savour every delicious bite of your meal.
Don’t worry about what others think: Chances are they’re jealous you get to dive into your pasta without having to pause for polite conversation.