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The truth about dining solo
Is it lonely, or a slice of heaven?
It’s played out the same way countless times.
I’ll walk in as breezily as I can, mouth curling into what I hope looks like a confident smile, eyes sweeping the restaurant to check out my potential dining partners, and the empty tables between them, like gaps between rotting teeth. I’ll wait patiently to be noticed by the waiter, standing straight and still, and watch as they approach, in those milliseconds trying to weigh up whether what I’m about to ask will be interpreted as an outrageous request.
I never say ‘table for one’. I am not in a Noel Coward play. ‘It’s just me,’ I say, with a hint of an apology, a trace of guilt for the empty cover that will remain unused opposite me on my intimate date with fresh air. Sometimes I’ll even add, ‘I’m afraid’ to the end, maybe to make them pity me a little, make it sound like I would love nothing more to be dining à deux, or more, but circumstances prevent it. Sometimes there is irritation in their acknowledgement, sometimes they don’t care, but as they lead me to my table – the worst one they can find, usually – I can’t help but wonder whether they’re curious about why I’m alone. A jilted lover. A stoic widower. A miserable loner. Toxic, somehow, friendless. Typhoid Mary in Uniqlo separates. But they’re not thinking of me all. I’m a piece of a jigsaw or an Amazon parcel being slotted into as tight and inconvenient a space as possible. I’m better at this part now. My cheeks don’t burn anymore. I don’t rush to my seat lest the onlooking diners throw stones at me for being unclean. I smile, lie that this table will do nicely, thank you, and take my seat.
Other diners do look over. They can’t help themselves. Unless you’ve got a laptop handy, it’s still something of a novelty to see someone eating alone and not assume they’re a tragic figure, consumed by loneliness, watching everyone else having the time of their lives, heart heavy with envy. People comfortable with each other, laughing and enthusing over the menu, sharing an experience they might refer to years hence. As if the whole world waits behind a window.
This is the part where I’m supposed to say I never feel like that, that I love dining alone, that it’s empowering and that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying your own company. And often that is true. But sometimes it’s not. Maybe I do wish I could pull up a chair, or join in an argument about ‘chilli oil on pizza, yes or no’, or even, the ultimate sin, fork the leftovers from a friend’s adjacent plate into my mouth. Sometimes I love being left alone. And sometimes I long for drab smalltalk and someone determined to explain in great detail just how good their massaman curry is. Do I occasionally feel a little sorry for myself, sad there’s no reason to watch the door because nobody will be walking through it for me? Does the animated chatter of happy strangers sound like a song I don’t know, and can never learn? Of course.
They say the smartphone has ruined everything and one day it will cause the planet to explode or whatever, but it’s hugely improved solo dining for me. Scrolling absentmindedly through your phone, or perhaps devouring a longread over your orecchiette, is much easier than trying to balance a paperback or grappling with a newspaper. And while gazing out of a window, or out into the dining room, as you eat alone feels wistful and romantic, to a casual observer it has the same effect as a dog pressing its wet nose against a butcher’s window. An air of longing.
But I don’t always long for company. Sometimes I like nothing better than heading to a favourite place, perusing the menu with the innocent wonder of a toddler seeing snow for the first time, ordering exactly what I want and having it served to me while I sit glued to my screen watching someone getting cooked to hell in quote-retweets over some trifling matter. It’s luxurious. Indulgent. Call it self-care if you like – a term I find overly clinical, it brings to mind gently rubbing cream into eczema – but I think selfishness suits it just fine. For an hour or so, or longer if you dare stretch to a pudding, you are looking after number one. Monarch of the moment. As for the people on the next table, gritting their teeth as friends bicker over starters – ‘we can’t all get the same, it’s weird’ – and the family a few rows over, praying their children won’t start screaming for iPads before the mains come… well, maybe they look over not with pity, but a longing of their own. Maybe they’d like to be you for an hour, in your own world, nonchalantly twisting salad leaves round your fork, tracing shapes in the condensation of your hibiscus cooler with your free hand between scrolls. Sometimes this is lonely, yes, but sometimes it’s heavenly.
I could be anyone. I have no companion to define me, to confirm the suspicions of anyone who can be bothered looking. I am the only clue and because I never speak, aside from ordering and asking for the bill, I remain a mystery. Dining alone is, for me, cosplaying as a person who might actually be interesting. Nobody needs to know the truth.
Yet as the cost of living crisis tightens its grip on our tender throats, there’s a flicker of selfishness that feels like the other, sourer kind. Is it right to take up a whole table when it’s just you? How the restaurant owner’s hearts must sink when they see me coming, Lord William de Zero Pals, back again for just one course, all by himself, no booze even to plump out the bill. Should I be here? Am I allowed to enjoy myself like this? And on a personal level, can I actually afford to drop £20 on a solitary lunch? Whenever I dine alone, I’m brought to mind of frothing bigots who talk about ‘flat screen TVs’ and claim people visiting food banks are spending their child benefit on tequila. The idea that pleasure only belongs to those rich enough to afford it fills me with fury. You can dress up a solo dining session as a luxury, or a necessity. Lorry drivers tucking into a McDonald’s at Fleet services, alone, aren’t worried about looking over indulgent, and neither are solitary billionaires picking at tasting menus in joyless opulent dining rooms in half-empty hotels.
I do not have much, but every couple of weeks, I might go eat a pizza on my own, or grab some noodles, or sushi. My dining companion may always be the same, strong, silent type, but every meal is different.
It’s lonely. It’s heavenly. You never know which until you’re at the table. It’s a gamble. Worth it, though. Take a seat.
Now the former bird app appears to be migrating south at a rate of knots, I am available to follow on Instagram, Threads, and Bluesky should you wish to stay in touch. Or we can just keep this going here. I haven’t left Xwitter, though.
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