October 4, 2019

I remember the first time it happened to me. I was on a brief vacation in London. It was 10pm, and I was alone in a city filled with strangers, roaming the empty, rain-drenched streets on an even emptier stomach. After being on my feet for nearly 10 hours, I was aching for a bit of sustenance, but the city was already half-asleep. Finally, by some astrological miracle, I stumbled upon a low-profile Italian brasserie that was still open, and settled in for a plate of beef Bolognese pasta. 

On any other day, I wouldn’t be caught dead eating out on my own, especially at a fancy restaurant or a cafe where the cool folks hang out. I’ve had my fair share of awkward encounters with waiters as a solo diner, driven mostly by my innate shyness and the fear of being harshly judged for not knowing where the bathroom or the water dispenser is. Coupled with the influx of hipster joints, you can never tell at a new cafe if you’re supposed to get the waiter’s attention or order at the counter. And there’s nothing more uncool than looking like a cluelessly lost fool, wandering around a 900 sqft establishment. 

That night in London, however, was different. It was the first time I didn’t feel entirely miserable going through the socially unconventional process of eating out alone. Perhaps it was the excitement of being in a bustling, new city, or the motivation of embracing all things “solo” on a solitary holiday that made the entire affair more palatable. But if I were to be completely honest, it was the sheer hunger that made the difference. So starved was I that I didn’t even spare a thought for the fact that I was alone. 

Instead, my attention and energy was solely focused on the swirl of sweet yet meaty Bolognese sauce intermingling with the succulent strands of spaghetti on my plate—and maybe the cute British waiter too who brought the dish to my table and did me the favour of sprinkling extra cheese over it. As I dug into my dinner, with the help of a little Chardonnay, I basked in the quiet solitude and the calm that surrounded me. Even in the presence of a boisterous group of older gentlemen, dining just a few feet away from me, my mind was far from chaotic. It was as if someone had cast a spell on me and uttered the words, “Neurosis, be gone!” There was no need to deal with small talk, or wait for your companion’s food to arrive. I could order whatever I wanted, and above all, take my time. 

While my epiphany came by accident, there are more active ways to become pro-solo dining and master the subtle art of savouring unescorted epicurean adventures. It starts with the mindset. Many of us suffer from the spotlight effect, where it feels as though everyone around you is watching your every move, waiting for you to stumble. This doesn’t just make solo dining torturous. It fuels everyday anxiety as well. 

What’s more, you’ve seen friends casually make fun of the “loners”. Not knowing what their story is, your immediate judgement of them invites questions such as whether they’ve been stood up by a date, whether they’ve got any friends at all, whether they’re moping about something that’s gone wrong in their life, or whether there’s anything fundamentally wrong with them. For some reason, people feel inclined towards assuming the worst first, and so you learn from that and adopt the stigma of solo dining. 

Beyond the fear of judgement is the fear of trying something new. Stepping into a trendy restaurant you’ve never been to, is akin to being the new kid in school. You feel immediately out-of-place like a fish out of water, too self-conscious to admit you’ve no idea how things work there. Even the simple task of calling for the waiter seems like an uphill struggle, your multiple failed attempts driving home the belief that you’re that invisible and insignificant class geek in a room full of confident cheerleaders and intimidatingly edgy alphas. 

At the end of the day, you’ll have to realise it’s all in your head. Realistically, the bell boys would be far too busy serving everyone else to judge you, and the other diners would be too engaged in their own conversations to do the same. Even if your clumsy self ends up dropping a glass cup, you’ll pretty much be forgotten after the first 30 seconds of the commotion. Imagine looking through the perspective of the people around you. Would you dwell on the poor soul that slipped on their way into the restaurant, or bother to memorise the contours of their face so you’ll remember to mock them internally when you see them again? Probably not. 

Look at it as a power move instead, a declaration of your self-worth and self-confidence that asserts, “Yes, I’m secure, cool and self-reliant enough to enjoy a meal on my own. I’m not worried about being seen a certain way.” Because you can’t be pressured or oppressed into conformity, meaningless societal expectations have no hold on you. 

And don’t be too ashamed to whip out your phone or a book. You’re not here to prove you can spend time with yourself, sans distractions. You’re here to indulge in whatever you please. Although, don’t resort to hiding behind these things to avoid being in the moment. Take the time to absorb your environment, lift your head up, look at the folks around you, and reflect on the beauty of life or just how delicious the food is. 

If you think about it, everyone in the room is eating alone, even the ones with big groups of friends and family. There will come a point in time when instead of talking about their day, they’ll have their mouths full and tummies filled, silently slurping their spaghetti. I’m not saying that one is better than the other, but the next time you go, “Table for one” to the maître d’, be sure to say it loud and proud.