stories

Solo dining

left: original artwork, right: the tea towel itself (creased, stained and used)
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My sister will not eat alone in a restaurant. She also believes that solo dining is one of my more peculiar habits, one so unfathomable to her that she cannot bring herself to see any joy in it at all. I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum, and I love it more than almost any other lone activity.

Solo dining is absolute prime territory for excellent people watching. Contrary to what my sister believes, not one single person has ever been remotely interested in me when I’ve sat in a restaurant on my own. In fact, other people are so immersed in what’s happening at their own table that the entire restaurant seems to melt away for them; waitstaff appear like apparitions or ninjas, refilling wine glasses or removing empty plates, and conversations get louder the more glasses are filled or crockery disappears. People at a dinner only have eyes for their own meals, and their own dinner-mates. It makes them excellent character-fodder for fiction writing. I’m thinking now about the couple sitting in the next booth from me at a diner, hidden from my view, and apparently convinced that the relative privacy of their booth was sufficient for a very confrontational conversation about her affair. I’m also thinking of the family on a table across from me in a busy chain Italian restaurant on Charlotte Street one lunchtime, the father pleading with his son to please stop playing with the mushrooms out of his pasta.

I love cooking, but mostly I love cooking for other people, and I find cooking quite dull when it’s just for me...

I’ve eaten alone in lots of cities, and covered every mealtime and some extras. Breakfast is the least conspicuous - tons of people eat breakfast alone, whether you go to a greasy spoon or an instagram brunch place. The same goes for lunch, when you’ll be surrounded by people grabbing something on their lunch break, unless you go somewhere fancier and then you can eavesdrop on ladies lunching and business meetings and decide for yourself whether or not they’re going well. Dinner is the time you’ll probably notice that most of your fellow diners are in twos or threes or groups. It feels like the most decadent time for solo restauranting, especially if you’re somewhere a bit upmarket. In the UK and in Europe, no one blinks at you if you’re eating alone. In North America, I’ve been given extra sides with my meal, “just to try.” In Korea, where single-person households now make up over a quarter of homes, dining alone - honbap - is a trend complete with levels of achievement (being vegetarian, level 8 - eating at a Korean BBQ alone - is probably one I’m not going to unlock) as the culture shifts from communal eating, the waiter brought me a glass of very nice wine I hadn’t ordered, and sat with me for a chat about Seoul and what I should do while I was there. I’ve had interesting conversations with people I never otherwise would have, as well as hearing interesting conversations I wouldn’t have paid any attention to if I wasn’t on my own. 

I would absolutely prefer to go out alone to eat than to stay at home and cook for one if I’m home by myself. I love cooking, but mostly I love cooking for other people, and I find cooking quite dull when it’s just for me, and quite repetitive, once I realise that I’ll be eating the vat of Mexican rice I’ve made for my next eight meals. I feel very fortunate that I can afford to indulge in something that’s really quite indulgent when I want to (it definitely wasn’t always the case, and maybe that’s where part of the joy of it comes from). Early in my solo career, I used to make sure I had a book or a magazine with me, or I would get my phone out as soon as I sat down, or put my headphones in. Now I’m a seasoned solo restaurateur, most of the time it’s nicer to just sit. Even though there’s probably a book in my bag, I don’t need it to make me feel more comfortable about eating on my own. 

Solo dining is absolute prime territory for excellent people watching.

When you ask in a restaurant for a table for one, you always get an offer of at least two tables - one will be tucked into a corner, or at the back, and one will be a countertop table at the open kitchen, or a window seat, or that awkward table for two squashed into the very middle of the room, impossible for two people to sit at, but perfect for one. I’ve sat at all of them, and though the awkward table needs a quick scan to see if you can actually get to it before you sit down, the second table category is always the best. At the counter, especially if you’re there by yourself, sometimes you can have a bit of a chat with the chefs, or the bartender if you’re sitting at the bar. Sometimes you bypass the heat lamp on the pass and the kitchen will pop your plate down in front of you when your food is ready. In a window seat, you’ll get the best view of the room and, if it’s sparse on viewing material, you can watch the people outside. The awkward table puts you right in the centre of the action, but it’s a double-edged sword; flagging down a second glass of wine is like an Olympic sport. 

Years ago, I was wandering around in London on my own, and noticed a woman sitting at an outside table of a restaurant in the West End. She had huge dark sunglasses on, her hair pulled up in a bun, and was wearing black Louboutins, skinny black trousers and a jumper, and a pillar box red, floor length coat which had pooled around her feet. On the table in front of her, she’d balanced her Chanel handbag against the pepper mill, and was twirling her fork into a huge bowl of spaghetti. As I walked past, a waiter swept out to her and put a glass of wine on the table, and she looked up at him, fork hovering and mouth wide, her face just completely full of joy. She’s so vivid in my memory. It was, and maybe still is, one of the chicest things I’ve ever seen.