Should you feel shy about being a lone diner – and is there an etiquette to dining alone? Here are my thoughts, based on ten years’ experience of sharing a table with myself.
The husband and I were checking out a restaurant the other evening when we found ourselves seated just across from a lone diner – a mature, rounded chap with a froggy face and a deep, penetrating voice. The tables were close-set, which doesn’t usually bother me but tends to make Jamie clam up. He finds it impossible to block out other people’s conversations and I’ve known him sit there getting increasingly incensed by the nonsense being spouted by someone two tables away.
In this occasion the tables were turned; the froggy gentleman, with nothing else to occupy him, was clearly paying close attention to the conversations taking place on either side of him. It seemed we had become his evening’s entertainment.
Things went a step further when he decided to advise a lady on an adjacent table on her food order: she had ordered flat iron steak, and he (rightly enough) told her that she was wrong to order it medium/well done because this cut of meat can become tough and chewy with cooking. He gave her a little lecture, at the top of his voice, about where on the animal this cut of meat comes from, and why it needs to be cooked rare.
“Oh ok, thank you” she said politely. “In that case I’ll have it medium rare.”
Mr Frog was not happy with this: he told her it really needed to be rare.
“I promise you it won’t be bloody,” he assured her.
She stuck to her guns and the lone diner tutted and shook his head pityingly.
I’m not sure how she felt about having her order loudly rubbished in front of the whole dining room, but when the lone diner finished his meal and left, the room seemed to let out a collective sigh.
Mr Frog was clearly a regular at the restaurant and as a serial lone diner I have some sympathy with him. I’ve toured UK restaurants for a decade, and by necessity I often go alone. When I started dining alone I felt incredibly nervous and self-conscious. Save for the occasional snack in the city, I was new to lone dining, and I felt I would stick out like a sore thumb.
I still remember my first lone meal, in a little Italian in Cardiff. I had to psyche myself up beforehand, and went equipped with a book, which I buried my nose in as soon as I was seated. It took me a good year to be able to walk into a restaurant and say “table for one” without inwardly cringing.
Then a couple of things changed: first, I realised that the staff were was just as nice to me as to any couple or groups. There were no pitying stares, and rarely any glimmer of surprise that I had only myself for company.
Secondly, I realised I didn’t give a damn what anybody thought anyway. When you stop caring what people think, it’s amazing how the world opens up for you. I embraced lone dining, loving the opportunity to focus more intensely on my meal than if I were with a companion, and to dip my nose into a good book in between courses.
Occasionally I’ve ended up acquiring impromptu dinner companions: in the aptly named Pollen Street Social in Soho the neighbouring table of Americans chatted cheerily to me throughout my meal.
At L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Covent Garden, all lone diners are seated at the fabulous bar surrounding the open kitchen in the clubby basement dining room. Cheek by jowl to each other and with the full spectacle of the kitchen to enjoy, you can’t help but exchange remarks, and I eventually ended up heading upstairs for after dinner cocktails with the American woman who had been seated next to me.
Maybe it’s significant that it’s Americans who have most often struck up a conversation; if so, it’s a trait us Brits would do well to embrace.
As a restaurant writer, there are times when I feel my lone dining status makes me easier to spot. Dining alone in the city is not uncommon; you can pass yourself off as a tourist of business traveler with no problem at all.
In the country it can be different; I remember dining alone in one country pub, listening to the kitchen staff debating which guide I might be from. Sometimes it’s just implausible that I should have turned up at a place alone on the premise that I happened to be in the area: I have driven to remote country hotels in the wilds of Scotland and dined entirely alone (ie. no other diners – just me amid the white napery and chandeliers) while the staff politely ask me whether I’m holidaying in the area.
I’ve only once encountered open consternation at my aloneness – in a Thai restaurant out in the countryside, where they seemed genuinely unsettled by the fact that I was unaccompanied until I told them I was in the area on business and staying at a nearby hotel.
Even when I do occasionally stick out like the sore thumb I once feared I would be, I still enjoy the experience. Lone dining is fun – it’s a way to treat ourselves and unwind while being waited on hand and foot. As a way to relax, I’d personally rather go for a meal alone with a good book than head to a spa to have oils slathered all over me. More people need to head out there and embrace lone dining. Here are some tips for getting the most from the experience:
- Don’t give a damn what anyone thinks; you are the customer and you’re just as important as any group of diners, so you can expect to be treated beautifully.
- Don’t get fixated on what’s been said on the next table; it may well irritate you and besides, people can often tell when they’re being earwigged… having said that, if you’re a novelist looking for material, this could be a rich hunting ground.
- Do bring something to read – this is precious time to yourself and you’ll get bored between courses without a book.
- In fine dining restaurants, do take a sneaky photo of the menu so you can look back at the dish description if anything on your plate puzzles you.
- Don’t strike up conversations with those on other tables unless they make the first move. Saves awkwardness. Especially don’t be like Mr Frog.