The delights and challenges of dining alone

Dining alone is one of those rites that everyone should try at least once in life. There’s no sweeter feeling than strolling into a restaurant somewhere new, and savouring the hubbub all around you over a spicy pad thai and a bottle of Tiger beer. Or a creamy lobster bisque and a glass of Sauvignon. Or a bowl of grits washed down with an extra-strong flat white.

When you’re alone, time goes more slowly and you have the opportunity to soak in the feel of the place without distraction. You don’t have to worry about chit-chat or manners; instead you can concentrate on the important stuff: namely, the food. Oh, and you may make friends alone the way, too. Yet, dining solo isn’t always the easiest thing to do in the world. If you don’t routinely travel alone, you may feel a little awkward or self-conscious the first time you do it. You might end up somewhere where they make an undue fuss of you, or ignore you in favour of larger groups.

Below, you our Flashpacker audience – some of the most seasoned and honest travellers around – share your stories of eating out alone, from the good to the bad and the it-got-better. Take a look, and get set to fly solo on your very own restaurant foray:

Take a prop and people watch

If there’s one thing our Flashpackers agree on, it’s the power of a good book. But really, this is just a prop. The true beauty of dining alone lies in the time-honoured art of people watching; something that you can indulge in unashamedly when there’s no companion to entertain.

“I dine alone all over the world and have never had a problem,” says Kerry McConnell. “Just bring something you can pretend to read while you people watch.”

Stevie Arendsen agrees. “I did a week-long solo trip to Paris, and the people watching while having a nice meal with a glass of wine on a beautiful terrace was amazing,” she says. “I will never forget it.”

Read more: Less work, more life – tackling the mid-30s blues

If you’re not totally confident about the concept of eating out alone to begin with, it might be worth paying attention to your timing. Midweek evenings will be less crowded and full of groups of people than weekends.

“Dining out solo isn’t as daunting on a Tuesday night as it is a Saturday night,” notes Mizan Thropic.

Kristeen Symonds mostly eats out alone as a result of away trips for work, so this is something she has noticed, too. “I used to travel quite a bit for work so have eaten solo in a number of UK cities and have eaten out in Madrid (first solo trip),” she says. “I always take a book or something to read but have never felt out of place. Then again, I’ve never done it on a busy Saturday.”

Some places are better than others

Your experience of dining solo will naturally vary from restaurant to restaurant, and Flashpackers were quick to share where in the world they’d found it easier – or otherwise.

“The worst has been Zurich, I got people stopping in street and looking at me,”  says Mizan Thropic. “Best – anywhere in Italy!”

“I agree with Italy,” says Teresa Baker. “Quite a few restaurants will have a table for one tucked in a pretty good spot. And it’s always a great country to sit and people watch.”

“I got refused entry into several restaurants in Korea as a single diner, as all the meals were for sharing,” notes Marianne Kirrane. “I was happy to pay for the meal and eat it alone, but they wouldn’t let me! I never had a problem anywhere else.”

Read more: Meet the woman, 74, who traded love for lifelong travel

“Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam was good,” says Clare Gallagher. “They seemed confused by someone travelling solo but were happy enough to accommodate.”

Anecdotes aside, you obviously can’t generalise how an entire country may respond to eating out alone. But be prepared to take the rough with the smooth; if you have a less-than-glowing experience, shrug it off and know that there’ll be a better solo meal waiting just around the corner.

I eat out all the time by myself due to the fact that I travel alone for work a lot,” says Brian Bagenstose. “I wouldn’t say one country is better or worse than another for dining out alone.”

You may get better service

dining alone

Some Flashpackers report more favourable service from restaurant staff, as a result of being alone.

“I often dine alone all over the world,” says Amber Powell. “I’ve noticed that as long as you look happy/content nobody bats an eye. I’ve also noticed that the service seems to be better.”

“I took myself off to a lovely spa hotel in Daylesford here in Australia for a treat before starting a new job,” says Alexandra Cape. “Part of the package was dinner in their gorgeous restaurant each night. The wait staff were lovely and no one made me feel awkward about the fact I was on my own. I just stared out the window and enjoyed my food and wine. A couple near me told me later I looked very poised!”

… But not always

being single in your 40s

While most Flashpackers hail solo dining as a brilliant experience, they also recall bumps in the road. Restaurants that don’t accept solo diners (what’s that about?), being ignored or awkward reactions from staff have all been to blame in casting a shadow over their experiences.

“The only place I had a problem was a regular breakfast cafe I used to go to in London when I lived there,” says Amber Powell. “They said they couldn’t accommodate one person, so I left and never returned.”

“I eat on my own loads when travelling for work,” says Jessica Burge. “I often notice people give you a pitying look! I love it, nice meal and a glass of wine and half an hour with a book or magazine.”

“I’ve been in Mexico for the last two weeks and hardly speak Spanish,” says Kim Baker. “…I’m generally happy eating alone but the no Spanish lone diner thing definitely resulted in me being ignored in one restaurant in favour of larger tables spending a lot more cash.”

I find in Canada the waiters get more worried that you are dining alone than overseas,” says Daena Diduck. “I had one experience in Calgary, where I now live, where the waiter kept giving me things to keep me occupied. I’m really OK with eating out alone but this time it was kind of annoying.”

You might make random friends

Even though you’re intending to fly solo, the beauty of being spontaneous and setting your own agenda means you can quite often attract impromptu mates.

“I’ve eaten out by myself in London, New York City (nobody notices you) and in Seville where I got invited to join groups in a restaurant which was lovely!” says Aoibhin O’Malley.  

Read more: Why Japan is a dream destination for solo travellers

There may even be other solo diners for you to join, if you so wish.

“I wanted a schnitzel when I was in Vienna,” recalls Rebekah Clapton. “I was all by myself so I walked into a restaurant and asked for a table for one and they sat me at a table with a bunch of other lone diners. It was brilliant I ended up finishing dinner and going out for beers with them.”

And of course, people are more likely to approach you (in a friendly way) if you’re alone.

“I went out for a meal alone in Toronto once – I had a great time,” says Daisy Jones. “I went to a bar when the Playoffs were on – I had a burger and got chatting to people keen to tell me all about hockey! Great night.”

Friendliness can overstep the mark

dining alone

While eating alone can be a liberating experience, there are instances where you may draw unwelcome attention.

“I found Kuala Lumpur terrible for dining alone,” says Clare Gallagher. “The waiters wouldn’t leave me alone asking why I was by myself, do I want a date etc. In other places, men would just invite themselves to sit with me.”

This can be grating, and even intimidating. But both men and women also recount lighter stories of how eating alone led to unexpected encounters.

“One really hot waiter was intrigued as to why I was alone,” says Mizan Thropic. “But I was really looked after. [Had a] cheeky flirt sat in the sun, it’s all good.”

Read more: A life-changing rite – your stories of solo travel

Flashpacker Alan Landeryou also had an interesting experience in the Ukraine.

“I worked in Kiev for three months back in 2011,” he says. “As a result I mostly ate alone in the evenings or at weekends. One Saturday I’m having lunch ‘al fresco’ at a little restaurant when two stereotypically stunning Ukrainian women sit down at a table opposite. After about 5 minutes one of them strikes up conversation with me asking where I’m from, I explain that I live near London and she responds ‘My sister Lau you!’

“I reply ‘Sorry I don’t understand’, ‘My sister Lau you!’, ‘No, sorry, I don’t know what that means’. She tries again ‘She Lau you!!’ This time drawing a heart symbol in the air with her fingers. Straight away I think, ‘This doesn’t happen at home’, then I start imagining waking up minus a kidney or being robbed by their big burly mate round the corner, so I reply, ‘Thank you’ and then shout to the waiter ‘Can I have the bill please!’ Before making a hasty get away!”

Enjoy, and savour the freedom

Ultimately, ordering a table for one is about seizing the freedom to dine exactly as you wish. And after years of bickering over where to eat and having to be on form, that’s one of the most liberating feelings you can have.

“I dine alone quite often,” says Mike Fischer. “I enjoy it. It’s more relaxing. No pressure to impress a date. No hurry. Have a couple drinks. People watch.”

“I loved finding little cafes around Tenerife, Spain when I stayed there as an au pair for three months,” says Stevie Arendsen. “The people were always so friendly. Eating alone can be scary at first, but how lovely is it to not have to ask for anyone else’s input? You see a place that calls to you, and you go. Magical.”

Photos: Shutterstock



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