On Eating Alone

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By Suzanne Lenzer (Photo by Evan Sung)

I distinctly remember a meal that I shared with Virginia Woolf at an Italian restaurant in London in 1989. I had just graduated college and gone to London in hopes of working in a kitchen (typically, I ended up working as a waitress). In retrospect it seems quite daring to have left California with no job prospects, family, or friends nearby, but I wasn’t anxious about being on my own in a foreign country. What I was anxious about was eating out––alone.

Eating alone at home is one thing: You cook, then sit at the table and eat. Maybe you read or watch TV at the same time. But at twenty-one, eating alone in a restaurant was new to me. Growing up I’d always gone out to eat with my family, and in college, with friends. The idea of going to a proper restaurant and eating a meal by myself had never really occurred to me.

But suddenly, in a brand new city with nothing but time on my hands, I wanted to be out. But  the bravery that got me on an airplane with little more than a duffle bag and a couple of books abandoned me when it came to walking into a nice restaurant, asking for a table, and proceeding to eat dinner by myself. Hunger is a powerful force though, and it won out in the end.

I chose a restaurant I had passed on previous wanderings, the reconnaissance somehow providing a sense of security in the familiar. Then, armed with Woolf’s The Voyage Out (embarrassingly symbolic looking back now), I walked in. That part was surprisingly easy, and “Just one please” wasn’t difficult to say. But sitting down and scoping out the room, I felt awkward. I was terribly conscious of being young, female, and American, but mostly, I was conscious of being on my own while all the other diners were not. The lights were dim and the waiters were kind, but still, here I was out to dinner alone.

I ate a bowl of mushroom ravioli and drank a glass of red wine, the cheapest on the menu. And I know I read my book, or tried to, missing sentences and having to go back to re-read paragraphs – again and again – because my awareness of sitting there by myself was simply too strong. I couldn’t relax and forget my surroundings, and I imagined if anyone had bothered to notice me, they would have known this.

This memory comes back years later and many, many enjoyable solitary meals behind me, because of a woman I saw the other night. In New York you see people eating alone everywhere, from the corner dumpling shop to the most elegant restaurants. And, with the popularity of bar seating, more than ever you see people eating by themselves while idly reading a newspaper, or more likely, talking on a cell phone (which does not count as eating alone in my book).

But this young woman caught my eye. She came into this fashionable, casual restaurant, ordered a glass of wine, and drank it while eating a plate of prosciutto and cheese. She ate quickly, and glanced around often, a bit anxiously. She seemed distracted. Watching her I thought it might be her first time as a solitary diner.

It goes without saying that eating is nurturing. Our first food comes straight from our mother’s body and for most of us our formative years of eating are shared experiences with those closest to us. Later we share meals with friends, or partners, but for many if not most of us, eating alone is relegated to home or a quick bite somewhere anonymous, where it’s less about the experience than sustenance. Especially, it seems, for women. Independence and self-sufficiency aside, an anecdotal study of just a handful of my friends reveals that women still don’t eat out alone at restaurants with a sense of security, and it’s a shame. Because learning to enjoy a meal out with only your own company or that of a good book is an empowering experience, one that offers an opportunity to nourish both the body and the mind.

Perhaps we don’t eat alone more often because we’re taught not to—or rather we’re not taught how to. From day one we learn to eat in the company of others, and we figure out fast that the kids who eat alone at school are the kids who don’t have anyone to eat with. Socially, eating alone is not a sign of our strength, but of a lack of social standing.

We’re ingrained to believe that meals are communal activities. And, in today’s overly stimulated world we’re so accustomed to constant distraction that the act of doing something so focused, of sitting quietly in an intimate environment like a restaurant – with just ourselves for company – leaves us feeling exposed. With no one sitting across the table to keep us occupied, we wonder what those others sitting in the room make of our solitary status.

Of course that status is deceptive, because today being alone doesn’t mean being out of touch. Activities like phoning, texting, and emailing not only keep our minds from settling and enjoying the solitude, but from experiencing the purity and possible insecurity of being alone.

When I was struggling to cross the threshold of that restaurant in London there were no cell phones. I was very much by myself. But I hadn’t yet discovered the pleasure that comes with deciding exactly what I want to eat without a negotiation with someone else. I hadn’t imagined the sense of independence that accompanies ordering a meal and not asking what others are having or wondering if they’ll want to share. And I hadn’t realized the depth of the flavors of food that I could experience when there wasn’t anything to occupy my mind beyond the plate in front of me and my own thoughts. How earthy and rich those porcini, how tangy that lemon tart! How much I sometimes miss of the food itself when chatting my way through meals with friends.

The truth is eating alone is a treat. Now, when I’m in my chair or on my stool, menu in hand, I get to think about what I’m going to enjoy eating and drinking all by myself, ponder what I’m going to think about or read that I haven’t had time for, and wonder, why I don’t do this more often?

Posted in Travel

16 Comments

  1. HeightsCat said...

    I think of dining out alone as a "treat" & don’t understand reading a book, rather than focusing on food & experience!

  2. Grace said...

    As a single person, sometimes it’s hard to find someone to eat with, and this has increased as my friends have settled down with their significant others. While I’ve never felt ashamed or scared to do anything by myself, whether it’s eat a meal, go shopping, or even go see a movie or a concert, sometimes it seems to solidify or reaffirm the fact that I’m just plain lonely, more than I should be.On the other hand, you do get to meet new people as other diners (solitary or no) may strike up a converstaion. I had a couple remark to me that they were surprised to see a young woman at the bar to order drinks & dinner by herself. I mentioned that I know some people that work at the restaurant but would feel comfortable doing so even if that wasn’t true and they just remarked that I must be very confident and comfortable with myself. Kind of made my day :)

  3. MomBug said...

    Before I retired – the first time – my job required that I be on the road about 3 weeks of every 4. I never minded eating alone (enjoyed the quiet actually) and always have a good book at hand. What I minded was the way I was treated by the staff on occasion. It seems things have yet to change in some of the finest establishments.I do NOT like sitting by the kitchen door – or the front entrance for that matter when there are other empty tables available. I do not like being seated at a dirty table or next to two of them for my entire meal as I was at the Mayflower in Washington D.C. I expect to be treated just as well as if i were Mark Bittman. High on my list is the Hilton in D.C. where I was well treated, not rushed and extended every courtesy. So my word to all the women traveling alone is to enjoy. If you have a great meal be sure and let folks know, if you are treated poorly also be sure and let folks know, politely. Be prepared to have a very enjoyable meal, you will 99 percent of the time. Don’t forget your book though –

  4. edugel said...

    I wrote about this same thing in Fatty, but not nearly was well. Great writing. Right on the nose.

  5. Anonymous said...

    I try not to be awkward actually I really like to be alone and to do by myself self-consciousness makes us very very tired

  6. Anonymous said...

    I remember when I first started to eat alone, and go to movies alone. Oddly, my friends thought it was weirder that I went to movies by myself (something I love to do) than ate by myself. But I do enjoy going out to a nice restaurant by myself, and have had both great and not so great experiences. I think being comfortably by yourself is something of an art.

  7. Anonymous said...

    I traveled in Europe recently, mostly by myself, and did a lot of eating alone. It is something I do at home, but in a restaurant mostly would prefer company, as it is a social environment, and the experience more enjoyable when shared. We use newspapers, books, and now cell phones as substitutes, I think.

  8. Word Bandit said...

    I agree. Well done. Especially for women the move into a joyful celebration of solitude, gratitude for a good meal, a glass of wine, and unselfconscious moments alone is tremendously delicious.I have women friends who are bound by the convention of shared public meals, and I think it speaks to something deeper that ripples throughout their psyches, showing itself also in insecure "self" relations.I have no reservations about eating out alone. Sometimes I meet interesting people and have stimulating conversations, most times not. Both are a delight.Thanks for a wonderful essay, strengthening the bonds of self in satisfied solitude and with others who choose similar.

  9. Anonymous said...

    I rarely go out for a meal for two reasons, one, I do not really enjoy social eating, and , two, I honestly feel kind of very strange sitting alone….one special meal I do remember, and I do remember every bite and all the decor, and, even faces of that special evening…I had been living in a relatively solitary world for the first time since I took on raising my two children, I was backpacking, hostel to hostel and eating from grocery stores in the UK…on the last day because of a long gap between flights in London, I wandered all over London on a red bus day pass, best hidden deal from Heathrow, 3 pound for 24 hours, then, before heading back to Heathrow, I stopped at a chicken restaurant, borderline fast food but just to the right toward finer dining….it was my first formal meal since I had had breakfast in Montreal with my daughter before leaving Canada 3 months earlier…now the truth, I had one incredible meal, sucked up all the surroundings and conversations, then, I ordered a second meal, something one would never even consider with guests…reading your article makes me want to do it once again, but, in North America, one is made to feel out of place dining or at the theatre…isn’t it so sad that one’s own space is perceived as such poor company?

  10. Anonymous said...

    I travel a lot internationally and end up eating in my hotel room. Thank you for writing this post-you have given me a different story about eating alone. If the streets are safe to walk, I will get out more and totally enjoy the experience.

  11. BottyGuy said...

    I prefer to eat at bars or counters when I eat alone, I find it more comfortable and I am more likely to strike up a conversation with a stranger when I eat at the counter. At the counter you are more approachable and it is a friendlier atmosphere. I’ve had some of the best dinner conversations in my life with strangers while eating dinner at restaurant counters/bars. In the RTP area of the North Carolina try the counter at Poole’s Downtown Diner in Raleigh, or the bar at Crooks Corner in Chapel-Hill.

  12. Anonymous said...

    I’ve never minded eating out lone, and was surprised to find out people thought it was something to be pitied! But I definitely bring a magazine or book for mental stimulation.

  13. Anonymous said...

    I feel you! It took me some getting used to, too. Because my lover and I lived quite far apart I practiced eating out alone in my home town. Last year I went to London on a short trip, and I promised myself a dinner at Moro.Every morning I’d buy The Guardian from the newsstand and hit town. But for my trip to Moro, I dressed up. And I went. By myself. I loved it. Took my time, reading the paper, sampling the dishes. It was great. But I was happy I had "practice".

  14. locuststreet said...

    Perhaps how we approach "eating alone" is situational?I never would have imagined that I would regard eating alone as a rare luxury. But indeed, as a mom of two under 3 years of age, it is just that. In a couple of years when quiet days are less rare, perhaps I will loathe eating alone?

  15. Anonymous said...

    Nice piece. I wrote a similar one here: http://weblog.saribotton.com/?p=428

  16. Dave Sparks said...

    "I had just graduated college and gone to London in hopes of working in a kitchen ." Really?? ;)

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