At a recent family gathering, the conversation turned to dining, and from there to a common practice of mine: eating alone in restaurants.
My grandmother, who’s in her 80s and grew up in the upstate town where they all live, said she’d never do it, that when she was a girl it was frowned upon and it still felt strange to her. Other female relatives a generation younger talked about their reticence to eat in a place where they thought they’d be judged by fellow diners, silently pitied as a loser. One aunt who waited tables at an upscale restaurant said she always felt bad for people who were eating alone, wondering if they were lonely. “Unless they had a book with them,” she added, smiling.
I’ll be honest: It’s hard for me to wrap my head around any of this, even though history shows that my female relatives’ sentiments come from decades of American practices and prejudices. Though I’ve been with my husband for 18 years, nearly half my life, I spend a lot of time eating alone — while traveling for work, grabbing a bite between appointments, or just because I want to. I might have a book with me, or I might not. But a life without eating alone is unimaginable to me.
These days, I’m in good company. Solo dining has risen sharply in recent years, according to data collected by the restaurant reservation company OpenTable. The internet is full of people proudly proclaiming their love of eating alone and extolling its many virtues, often over and against the same assumption of my grandmother and aunts: that solo dining is socially unacceptable, something to be feared. (This fear even has a dubious psychological name: solomangarephobia.)
Yet the joys of eating alone have been documented since ancient times, and I’m happy that it’s never occurred to me to think of solo dining as anything other than an ordinary act. The history of solo dining, particularly for women, hasn’t always been welcoming, and even now there are some best practices I’ve developed to help me do it well. But for me, eating alone in a restaurant is almost meditative, even if I’m just wolfing down a plate of pasta between meetings.
Dining out by myself is a form of self-care, a way to derive immense satisfaction from the experience — the ambience, the flavors and textures, the chatter around me. Without a dining companion to entertain, I can sit with my thoughts, watch the world around me, eavesdrop on fellow diners, maybe have a conversation with the bartender if I’m seated at the bar. I start to remember that I’m not alone at all; I’m part of a community of people, and most people, believe it or not, are friendly and interesting. Eating alone, in a paradoxical way, can get me out of my own head.
On a recent solo research trip to San Francisco, I picked at random a seafood restaurant humming with activity, and took the last seat at the bar. The meal that followed — an octopus dish, and a strange little wine the bartender recommended — was transcendent, something to be savored. I was glad I was eating it surrounded by people who smiled when I sat and left me to myself. Not once did I feel out of place.
But maybe I should rethink that feeling. When I started digging into the history of solo dining — particularly as a woman, unaccompanied by a man — I realized this act I take for granted several times a week is one that previous generations had to fight for. Just over a century ago, a woman dining without a man in a restaurant was presumed to be looking for business, so to speak; she was disreputable, and the restaurant that allowed her to do such a thing was, too.
That stigma was relatively new in the 20th century. In the early 19th century, communal dining at long tables in restaurants was the norm. After the Civil War, the luxury restaurant was born, and with it the private dining table. Diners usually came in pairs. “Lone women” were frequently discouraged or even barred from fine restaurants, and as restaurant historian Jan Whitaker told me, a “lone woman” didn’t have to actually be alone — a group of women unaccompanied by any man were also considered to be “lone women.”
A radical exception came in 1868, when the New York restaurant Delmonico’s became the first to serve a group of women unaccompanied by men. Even then, it was a planned event hosted by a women’s social club, not a regular policy. Things started to change when women entered the workplace and gained, almost by necessity, more freedoms. Lunch counters, diners, and establishments designed to make solo diners, especially women, feel more comfortable started to pop up, particularly in cities. “As a lot of women started working around World War I, that just had to break the system down,” Whitaker noted.
Even as late as the 1960s, however, some restaurants barred women diners altogether, or allowed them in only if accompanied by a man. In 1969, Betty Friedan and 15 other women charged into the Oak Room — the storied restaurant at New York’s opulent Plaza Hotel — bearing signs with slogans like “Wake up PLAZA! Get with it NOW!” and “The Oak Room is Outside the Law.” It worked: Four months after the protest, facing media coverage of the event, the restaurant overturned its no-women policy.
As women slowly gained the freedom to dine alone in public, the fear of being bothered by others — especially men who assumed the women wanted attention — became more acute. The solution was a familiar one. “Taking a book to a restaurant, reading it while you’re eating, that was just universal,” Whitaker notes. It was an especially attractive option for women. “Sometimes women just did not want to look like they wanted to be disturbed,” she said.
That certainly has continued. I love to bring a book to a bar, though I find it can be more of a conversation starter than a conversation ender these days. A phone is a more reliable way to signal your unavailability.
And the use of the phone during solo dining is pretty noticeable. The art photographer Nancy Scherl recently released a book called Dining Alone: In the Company of Solitude, containing decades of her photos of solo diners around the world. “I feel that sometimes the phone becomes a bit of a crutch for people — that they are pulling out their cellphone instead of people-watching, or smiling at someone who might be sitting next to them, or starting up a conversation with someone who might be sitting across from them or two tables down,” she said. “It’s nice to break down the barriers and feel that you can say hi, instead of whipping out your cellphone.”
Guilty as charged, though I love the random restaurant encounter, especially after so many months of severely limited opportunities to chat with strangers. Looking at my phone or reading a book also robs me of the opportunity to single-mindedly enjoy the experience, savor the flavors, be fully present in the moment.
So one of my intentions for 2023 is to continue to perfect the art of solo dining, basking in the experience whether I’m outside on the sidewalk letting the world go by or perched at a bar eating truffle fries. There’s no need to be afraid of what people think. “When we are in the position of observer, we have no clue what people are thinking or feeling,” Scherl told me. “We don’t know if they’re content or they are miserable — a lot of it is concealed.” Instead, I can remember that I’m exercising hard-won freedoms and doing something good for myself, too.
And in my years as an intrepid solo diner, I’ve learned a few tricks.
The best way to start is to sit at the bar, especially in a fancy restaurant. I like to watch the bartender make cocktails, or maybe chat with a fellow diner. You almost never need a reservation at the bar, and the look of relief in the host’s eyes when you say “I’ll just sit at the bar” in a busy restaurant makes you feel like a saint. These days, bars are designed for solo dining.
Some people feel awkward dining alone because they worry they’re taking up space that could be used by two diners, thus generating more revenue for the restaurant. That’s a very compassionate position, but there are ways around it. Try, for instance, an early dinner, before the restaurant fills up. (In my city, that means getting there around 5:30 pm; it varies by place.) Or go for lunch, which is often less busy anyhow. Be sure to tip generously.
A communal table (or a chef’s table) can also be a great option, and gives the added benefit of inviting conversation with other diners. Not all restaurants have them, but they’re especially good options while traveling in another city or country. Call or research the restaurant ahead of time to see if it’s an option.
Of course, recognize that practice makes perfect. Bring a book or magazine if it makes you feel more comfortable. But know that the more you do it, the less “weird” it will seem. Focus on eating mindfully, allowing yourself to focus on the flavors and presentation. Ask for recommendations from the staff. If you’re at the bar and they’re not too busy, strike up a conversation with the bartender. Some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had dining out, especially while traveling, have come from recommendations I’ve gotten at bars.
And most of all, have fun with it. As someone wisely once told me, “Nobody is thinking about you, because they’re all thinking about themselves.” Even if they are thinking about you — who cares? Your solo dining might inspire someone else to try it.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.
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