The art of dining alone if you’re a socially anxious person
In my previous life as a restaurant chef, I often ate alone. In some cases, it was due to my odd schedule. Only having Mondays off and being a curious cook eager to find out what other restaurants in town were doing – be it tacos or tasting – the likelihood of finding a dining buddy willing to run the full gamut of price at the start of the week was slim.
I ate very well, but mostly in a group. In recent years, it was about business trips. The job almost always took me to a big food city where I was often more inclined to experience the restaurant scene on my own than a hermit with a room service club sandwich after a day of travel.
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The art of eating alone: A stigma in the culinary world?
In the first instance, 25 or more years ago, there was a stigma attached to solo dining. I wish this was taken as a perception, as it sounds unnecessarily cruel, but discussions among service staff at restaurants I have worked in have shown me that this is not the case. According to chatter in the server station, eating alone paints someone as a capital L loser. I wasn’t going to let the chatter of young people in their twenties affect my dining experiences. But even in a city known for its excessive liberalism, I struck a bit of a bold figure that caught the eye of customers and staff alike. The tall guy with funny hair and hard-to-cover tattoos was an enigma. So I devised a few strategies to increase my chances of a pleasing outcome.
Fortunately, cultural perceptions have changed and solo dining no longer requires as many self-defense mechanisms as it once did. The strategies have changed over time, but the foundations remain the same.
Eating at the bar is a great idea — sometimes
The easy and obvious choice is to sit at the bar. It is almost universally agreed that the art of eating alone should occur in this space because people feel less exposed in the more communal setting that a bar provides. Naturally, a restaurant sees an empty seat at a two-table table as wasted revenue potential and will direct you to the lounge. Oddly enough, a group of three seated at four doesn’t elicit the same reaction, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to be seated at the bar if tables are available in the dining room.
The main question is, how badly do you want to dine solo?
While not without merit, eating at a restaurant and bar does have some downsides. The bar design typically allocates 18 inches with a three-inch pad on each side, leaving six inches between patrons. After a day of travel, I’m often not good at being as up close and personal with more humanity, especially when the spatial unconscious of neighboring seats spills over into my own. I either have to ask for space, a questionable action for a socially awkward but resentful person, or contort myself to accommodate their excess and still have access to my plate.
Even if they don’t encroach on his territory, eating next to other people can take many forms. I’m a fairly tall, cisgender, white, straight guy, and I’m well aware that I have some advantages that others don’t, especially in the area of unwanted engagement and the potential for inconvenience or danger that can accompany him. I have the luxury of taking my neighbor’s temperature before choosing to interact or shut up. Sometimes I want to interact with other people. Sometimes I want to isolate myself. Sometimes I want to have dinner.
A table is also a good option, but things can still get awkward
In these cases, I want a table. Suppose I am receiving several classes or working on a tasting menu. In this case, I like the same luxury of space offered to non-solo diners where I can sample various plates or have space for wine pairings without worrying that some or more pieces will end up in my lap. My social anxiety when practicing the art of eating alone is such that I occasionally bring something to read so I don’t have to be faced with the awkward decisions of what I should watch or do with my hands while waiting to order or for the food to arrive. I might also jot down notes about meal inspirations or serving items that I found standout. Either way, I want some space to facilitate those activities that a bar stool can’t. The books also reinforce the “I don’t want to be bothered” vibe. In a world where everyone plays with their phones, reading a book is a dedicated solo activity that isn’t easily mistaken for killing time and is less likely to invite interruption.
The bar can be a positive experience, don’t get me wrong. If I want interaction or just want to eat, drink and do other activities, the bar is better for me. I had great experiences and made friends in other cities through exercise. Somehow I feel easier hiring a bartender for drink recommendations and I’ve been exposed to some amazing spirits I might never have encountered otherwise. I take care of my phone if I feel the need to ease my discomfort or watch TV if they have one. The opportunities for people watching are far superior sitting at the bar. It’s easier to exist, if that’s the vibe, and not feel uncomfortable in a space where some eat but others drink and socialize.
Civility is always on the menu
I am always polite and courteous no matter where I sit and I practice the art of dining alone. It shouldn’t be surprising how far they go to ensure a good experience. I hire the waiter at the level of both of our comfort. If I have any questions or comments, I will express them. No matter how much I wish to be alone, please, thank you, “I’m fine, how are you?” and other exchanges of social civility are never overlooked.
Eating alone has been normalized since my days as this capital L. Work dynamics, home dynamics, or just wanting to eat something without the consensus to dine with another have made solo dining commonplace. Knowing what to expect and how to achieve it can make the difference in a superficial meal or dining experience. It’s a build-it-yourself adventure.
This story first appeared on www.foodandwine.com.
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