Why You Should Embrace Eating Out Alone
One is fun. There, I’ve said it, owned up to my penchant for doing it alone. And there are very few places I haven’t done it, flagrantly and shamelessly, with barely a care for bourgeois convention.
In cosy country pubs, frantic Hong Kong dim sum parlours, shabby Mexican taquerias. Even in the middle of some fetid Bangkok back street. Now this may be frowned upon by the more conservative members of society, and be seen as a little odd, perverse even, but I couldn’t care less. Because eating on one’s tod is one of life’s true luxuries, a cool, palm-fringed oasis of delight in the harsh desert of modern life.
OK, so I know the shared pleasures of the table are a fundamental joy, the simple act of breaking bread together more unifying than a million dead-eyed UN conventions. To sit with friends and family, to scoff and sup, gas and gossip, is not only a fine way to spend an evening. It’s more than that, a basic human need, homo sapien succour. The thing that, along with the opposable thumb, sets us apart from our fellow beasts. Culinary onanism, though, restaurant self-love, is a whole different thing, a time for gentle reflection and modest introspection, sat at the bar, or by the window, or right in the thick of the action. And a time to put away that infernal phone, with its insidious beeps and alerts.
Slow down. Look around you. At the long-married couple, who eat in a happy silence, a silence rubbed pebble smooth by the decades passed. Or that awkwardly excruciating first date, where conversation drips, rather than flows, and grins are as fixed as the à la carte. The leering older gent, with his pouting 'niece'. The old friends, fitting mouthfuls of food around the latest salacious titbits. The joyless work-lunchers with their rushed salads, corporate chat and strict adherence to water. As an endless, fascinating glimpse into the lives of others, restaurants are hard to beat.
My routine rarely changes wherever I am. The initial smile and raised index finger: “Just the one.” The settling in, getting comfortable, then the first glass, and the warm fuzz as you realise you have the whole table to yourself. The piling up of newspapers and magazines: Private Eye, The Spectator, Empire, Country Life. And Esquire, obvs. Or a book, a good book. I’m officially too old to cock about with Joyce, Milton and Eliot. It might look very Left Bank swanky, but really, when I’m eating alone, I want pages turning themselves. So Lee Child, Mick Herron, a dirty dose of 'true crime' or some splendidly salacious, gloriously gossipy diary or autobiography.
Ten years spent in the British boarding school system means I have little truck with sharing
As for drinks, a Martini, perhaps, ice cold and downed in two sips. Then a half-bottle of wine. And perhaps another. Definitely another. As the booze hits the veins, and flows to the extremities, and starts to numb the angst, the prospect of two languorous hours spent in one’s own company, with full glass and fine tucker, is nothing short of exquisite.
Then there’s the food. Ten years spent in the British boarding school system means I have little truck with sharing. A Sichuan hot pot’s fine, as is a slow-cooked shoulder of lamb. But this nonsense of 'sharing plates' is anathema to me. I want it all to myself. Now I have to admit that the solo diner is at a slight disadvantage in a restaurant where sharing is the norm: a Chinese place, say, or Indian pleasure palace. I look longingly at all the dishes I can’t have, dishes I could share with a friend, or a crowd. Still, I always over-order, and always have to assure the waiter, in a soft and apologetic tone, that yes, I know I’ve ordered a lot. And no, this isn’t a mistake. I will eat it all. And I do, most of the time. I’m not good at much. But in greed, I excel.
Any decent restaurant will welcome the solo diner with open arms. Keith McNally, the master restaurateur behind New York’s Balthazar, Minetta Tavern and Augustine, has a policy of sending out a glass of Champagne to any female solo diner. He sees their presence as the ultimate accolade. That the atmosphere is just right. I see people eating on their own, regardless of their sex, and I rejoice.
And some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten have been taken alone. That duck larb by the Mekong in Vientiane, where the darkness fell quickly and the roar of tuk-tuks was soon drowned out by the croak of frogs. The peerless brisket at Angelo’s in Dallas-Fort Worth; tacos al pastor at that Historico hole-in-the-wall in Mexico City. In fact, I’d say that half the lunches and dinners I’ve munched through in the past decade have been on my own. And I’ve loved every one. Sure, some have had their moments. The Italians have never quite grasped that food can be enjoyed in solo silence. The Lebanese, too. And all that fine dining malarkey can be tricky, although that’s more down to my low boredom threshold and the relentless tyranny of the tasting menu.
I remember eating at Tetsuya’s in Sydney, years back. Reservations were rarer than a decent England football team, but through the usual backstairs machinations I’d got myself in. Anyway, it involved some long and drawn out tasting menu. On about my fourth course, a typically jolly bunch of Aussies took pity on me. “Come and join us, mate,” they roared. “You can’t sit on your bloody own.” Being English, I hummed and hawed, and turned a deep crimson. For all their kindness, there was nothing I wanted to do less. So they asked the maitre d’… who said no. No, because I was two courses ahead and the kitchen wouldn’t like it. They were not happy. I was ecstatic.
There is no shame or stigma in eating alone. Obviously. Your money still smells the same, as does your tip. The food often tastes even better, unpolluted by other peoples’ views. And it’s something to embrace and adore, rather fear and abhor. I couldn’t care less if people think I’m a Norman no-mates. It’s a solitary pleasure, a delectable respite from the maddening crowd. Two may be company, three a crowd. But one… one is the magic number.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.