The first time I ever ate out alone was not by choice. I was in my mid-20s and had been sent to Portugal on a work trip. A botched flight schedule had meant that I had arrived a day earlier than my colleagues, and I found myself spending a day gloriously lost in Lisbon, wandering around the vertiginously sloping streets and stopping off for sticky pastel de natas that I tucked into as I strolled.
Although I reveled in a day in my own company, my confidence faltered when it came to dinner. Although I’m not afraid of being alone, I’ve always had a much more subtle fear — of being seen being alone. I spent most of my childhood far happier buried in a book than in the company of others and was painfully shy for most of my teenage years. I began to associate being alone with my failure to make friends and often felt self-conscious when alone in public. What did it say about me that I had no one to enjoy a meal with, even in this far-flung corner of Europe?
After much deliberation, I spotted a restaurant on an expansive square close to the broad river that connects Lisbon to the sea. I found a table facing out and ordered a large glass of wine and an even larger plate of pasta. I exchanged a nod of solidarity with a young woman eating alone nearby, and with the early evening sun beating down, I enjoyed one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Not because the food was so good (although it certainly wasn’t bad), but because it turned out that I could be my own best dinner companion.
Without the distraction of company, I ate slowly, savoring my food. I watched the bustle of an unfamiliar city unfold around me, tourists stopping to snap pictures of the sunset and the glow that it cast over the sandstone buildings nearby. I ordered dessert without having to perform the “I’ll have one if you’re having one” dance over the menu or being secretly disappointed when a friend suggested just asking for the bill instead.
Since then, I’ve relished the chance to eat out by myself. I’ve been fortunate enough to have numerous opportunities to travel alone, and each time one of the things that I most look forward to is my now-routine solo dining experiences. I will happily ask for a table for one without hesitation and won’t think twice to request the best seat in the house — the one with the glittering view of the city usually reserved for romance. On a recent trip to Paris, a waiter scattered rose petals on my solitary table in a restaurant crammed with couples and instead of feeling embarrassed, I felt delighted by the small gesture and ordered another glass of merlot to go with my chocolate mousse.
Recent research suggests that millennials are driving a trend in eating out alone and are more comfortable than any other generation doing so.
It seems that I’m not alone in being comfortable with my own company. Recent research suggests that millennials are driving a trend in eating out alone and are more comfortable than any other generation doing so. For women this step is particularly significant — research suggests that women feel that they have less of a claim to public space and are judged more significantly than their male counterparts for doing such activities alone. Feeling empowered to eat out without a dining companion overturns the age-old stereotypes suggesting that women’s significance comes from being part of a family unit that still subconsciously pervades modern thought. Although ordering the cheeseboard for one might seem like a simple act, it in fact flies in the face of centuries of social conditioning that orders you to do otherwise.
An entire narrative has sprung up around the specific circumstances in which women are allowed to enjoy food. For years we have been battered with body ideals that tell us to be waif-like and of little appetite. We are supposed to order the salad. We are supposed to say no to dessert. We are supposed to only indulge behind closed doors, ordering a large Dominos and Ben and Jerrys to the comfort of our own living rooms. We are not supposed to take up space. For me, the rise of eating out alone signifies that we are reclaiming our right to be unashamed about loving food — unashamed enough to throw up our hands and say “f*ck it” if we have no one to eat out with. I’m damn well going to try out that new dim sum joint anyway.
Of course, the specific circumstances of why we are eating out alone are likely much more complex. We are also endemically lonely. We are more likely to travel alone than previous generations and don’t want to compromise on the quality of our experience when doing so. The rise of smartphones means that you can sit across from an empty chair and still feel connected to hundreds of people. However, solo dining certainly doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The next time that you’re dying to tuck in to a delicious dish, consider booking a table for one. In a world where self-care is a way of life, you might find that there is nothing more indulgent than taking yourself out for dinner. You deserve it.