The Real Upside of Eating Out Alone
06.23.17

I wouldn’t say I “fear” eating alone in public so much as I aggressively dislike it. I’m not embarrassed by what strangers will think of me; I’ve willingly walked around NYC in nothing but a peach-colored towel, filmed a Facebook Live video where I dunked my face in whipped cream and penned an essay about my bikini line for all the world to read. Despite such clearly demonstrated bravery, I dread eating alone out in the open. Even the thought of it makes me squirm.

I guess I need to backtrack for a minute and explain that I have a habit of treating “mealtime” as “productivity time.” Productivity can include anything from working at my computer to watching the latest episode of one of my favorite shows to hanging out with friends. It basically just means doing something.

That’s why I never eat out alone, though. Eating out alone, without friend or computer or anything to occupy my hands and my time, sends red-alert signals to my psyche that I am wasting precious minutes which could be spent working or socializing or entertaining myself in some precious fashion. I have so little free time. It feels silly to spend it with my own thoughts.

It’s not just mealtimes — I avoid being alone with my thoughts in general. I listen to podcasts when walking by myself. I read until I’m too sleepy to think every night, lest I lie in bed and confront my mental regurgitations for too many minutes. As someone prone to anxiety, I treat my (often-anxious) brain like a kitten, distracting it as much as possible.

I get by with my avoidance tactics for the most part, because I work and live in New York, where productivity is regarded as the pinnacle of worthy pursuits. Refusing to eat out alone, however, is the one thing for which I am frequently given flack.

People seem to treat eating out alone as a necessary rung on the ladder to adult womanhood — it’s like you’re not truly comfortable with yourself if you’re not able to do it. This fixation reminds me of the relationship in The Notebook: romantic in theory, but ultimately, when you really think about, kinda weird.

I tried it, though, for the sake of this story. Just to see for myself if it was truly the life-changing, soul-searching, meditative, self-loving experience it been described to me as. I walked up to the hostess at Jack’s Wife Freda and asked for a table for one (I went during off-hours so it was empty enough that she wouldn’t make me sit at the bar. That’s how committed I was to the full eating-out-alone-at-a-table-for-one experience!)

I sat down and ordered a glass of wine, because it sounded like something an experienced solo diner would do. As I sipped my wine and, you know, contemplated life, I quickly came to the conclusion that this whole charade was B.S. I pulled my phone out of my bag and texted a friend who lives nearby:

“Wanna meet me for dinner? I saved you a seat.”

When she sat down, I ‘fessed up (i.e. started to rant). I told her I thought the hype around eating out alone was stupid — just one more “should” in a long list of higher-priority “shoulds” like wearing sunscreen and exercising and leaning in and meditating and watching TED talks.

“Well, personally, I don’t eat out alone because of some abstract cultural pressure,” she said in a (frustratingly) calm tone. “I eat out alone because it makes food taste better.”

Huh.

“When I eat out alone without the company of a friend or even a book, I pay so much more attention to the actual ritual of eating,” she continued. “It’s almost a surreal experience because I slow down and actually chew my food. I never appreciated the difference between gnocchi and brown butter gnocchi until I ate brown butter gnocchi on a date with myself.”

She had me at brown butter. I resolved to give eating out alone one more go, for the sake of properly tasting my food — a pursuit I could actually get behind.

A few days later, I took myself on a date to Palma, one of my favorite Italian restaurants in the West Village. I felt a surge of anxiety when I sat down, put my napkin on my lap and then…well…nothing. I had no one to talk to. Ugh. I quickly ordered a drink and my meal simultaneously in an attempt to get the experience over with as soon as possible. The food came fast, thank god. I looked down at my steaming bowl of fettuccine ai funghi and, despite having ordered this exact dish many times in the past, I realized I’d never noticed how good the wild mushrooms smelled. I swirled a forkful of noodles and took my first bite of creamy, earthy, caramel-y saltiness. I ate slowly, entertaining myself by eating noodles one at a time since I couldn’t entertain myself with conversation. It could have been all in my head, but I was pretty sure fettuccine ai funghi had never tasted this good before, which made me more than a little peeved because it meant my friend was right. Food really does taste better when it has your full attention.

Speaking of full, I had eaten most but not all of what was on my plate when I became aware that I was satisfied. I put down my utensils and asked for the check. That small moment was a revelation in its own right. Towards the end of almost any meal, I get anxious about deciphering my hunger cues — have I eaten enough? Too much? How did my pants suddenly end up unbuttoned?? But this time, it was easy. I felt strangely in tune with my body, I guess because there was nothing to distract me from what it was telling me.

Despite these revelations, I don’t think I’ll become a regular eat-out-alone person. I’ll admit it was more worthwhile than I was originally giving it credit for, but what’s the point of enjoying a delicious meal if I can’t brag about it to a fellow human sitting across from me?

Special thanks to Sant Ambroeus SoHo for photoshoot location. Follow them on Instagram @santambroeus.

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  • Mary Kate Kloeblen

    Recently, I went on a quest to do more things alone – eating out, traveling, going to movies, etc and I’ve found it to be completely liberating. I recently traveled out to SF by myself and similar to your experience with eating food – realized that I better appreciated my surroundings and really felt like I was able to stay in the moment so much better. I think we’re all so used to have having multiple sources of stimulation (phone, friends, work) while doing a lot of these activities that it’s nice to be a bit more mindful and in tune with yourself.

    • Adrianna

      I recently went to SF where I was alone most of the time. The best thing I did was rent a bicycle and spend the entire day exploring and hiking along the coast and bridge.

    • Andrea Raymer

      Solo movies are my favorite pastime! I don’t even remember the last movie I saw with other people! Usually I only go to a movie with other people if I want to experience the hype of anything highly anticipated, like Star Wars where the community of the fandom is important. I will also go to movies with other people on my second viewing if I want to share the experience with other people or force them to watch it.

      • kay

        yes movies alone!! it is the best esp if you can make it happen mid-day. it feels like so much less of a commitment, like if the movie turns out to be actually terrible or if it’s some niche non-fiction situation you don’t have to feel responsible for wasting anyone else’s time. it also feels just slightly deviant, so when I’m stressed at a family function i can promise myself a solo movie later and it calms my angst.

      • Harling Ross

        i love this approach and will be adopting

  • I also have noticed this phenomena: there’s so many distractions everyday, all day, that we don’t pay attention to the, quite often nice, little details.

    We block out sounds, smells, tastes, and awareness in general, because we just have too many things to think about and give our attention to at once.

    Great story, great writing as usual! Can’t wait for you next story!

    Meg @ its.meg-ramsay.com

    • Yes, next reflection, please! (Unless that inference of impatience means not being fully present?)

  • Abby

    I looooove eating out alone! It’s my absolute favorite. I won’t take my phone out or read or anything either, I just focus on the taste and the texture of the food and really enjoy it more than I would if I had to hold up a conversation or something.

  • Jennifer

    I’m a big fan of doing lots of things solo (shopping, traveling, movies, etc), but even though I enjoy dining alone, it is still weirdly uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because I tend to dine at the bar and some men feel it’s an invitation for conversation. Hello? Just because I’m sitting by myself at a bar doesn’t mean I’m looking for company. Let me watch the game, have a cocktail, and eat my meal in peace. (Maybe this is why I’ve been single for six years…) 😉

    • Harling Ross

      it’s funny you say that because i also LOVE alone time in general (shopping, walking around, etc) but eating alone feels weird to me

    • EMyrt

      Maybe it’s my demeanor, maybe it’s the book or the places I choose or the off peak hour, but I never get interrupted by men looking to offer their company…

  • Alice

    I eat alone a lot, but usually “convenience” meals when I’m studying or running errands all day.
    I should take myself on more dates but usually when I go to a nicer place it feels more worth it to go with my mom if friends so we can share plates and talk about the food.

  • Merrynell

    I went out and dined alone last night for the first time in a long time. I did also have the urge to text a friend to join me. But I enjoyed my time alone: it does make for a good savor moment: I enjoyed my dish, paid more attention to all the stuff that’s on my plate, and was even bobbing my head to the music. (It wasn’t just background noise this time!) Also, what a good way to avoid complaining for once! Because admit it, Isn’t it what we almost usually do when dining with others? #complainingisnotconversation

  • Anne Dyer

    No distractions typically equal way more in the sensory department. My honeymoon culminated in this epic meal at an Italian restaurant on Maui. I talked and talked and listened and talked until my then new husband finally looked at me lovingly and said, “Can you please stop talking. I’m trying to focus on my next bite” I laughed so hard and then tried even harder to remain quiet for 3 minutes.

  • Lindsey

    Actually coming to NY for work in two weeks, and I’m staying an extra day by myself to just explore and EAT, and tbh was kind of sad that I wouldn’t get to share in these meals I’m so excited to have *with* someone. Food is such a communal experience to me. I have no problem being alone (I am a total introvert), but something about eating with someone, where I can share in the pleasure of the food with them, makes it taste better to me.
    That being said, I do prefer to go to cafes alone. Going with someone is never as fun as going by myself.

  • Heather Chambers

    Eating out alone is one of my favorite things to do. I especially love taking myself out for breakfast.

    Until about the last year of her life my mother would absolutely refuse to eat out alone, even though she was constantly sad about not eating at all the places she wanted to eat.

  • Mindfulness. Food, flossing, heck, even a colonic. What is mindfulness if not full, uninterrupted presence – engaging every sense, aware of the moment’s affect on the holistic ‘Self’? Really, the most purposeful kind of listening. Odd how a busy schedule connotes ‘productivity’ because it typically divides attention from each task. Yet each task holds so much more potential. We can create sacred spaces or happenings thru a task as an offering. To ourSelves. In this binge age, here’s to mindful movie watching. In this e-porn era, here’s to mindful masturbation. In the rage of edible Instagram, congrats, Ross, on a mindful meal.

  • Chloe

    Thank you so much for sharing this 🙂 I used to eat out by myself quite a bit and I’d go and get coffees, I went through a bit of a self-esteem crisis and that all stopped but finally, my confidence is growing and I’m getting happier again 🙂 So, I’m definitely going to take this post into account and go out for food by myself. It’s good to spend time by yourself but, I now also want to see if the food really does taste better!

    Have a great weekend 🙂

    Chloe @ https://girllgonerogue.blogspot.co.uk/

  • Beril

    Sometimes eating out alone is just eating out alone… Americans tend to overthink everything. It must be quite tiring tbh

  • The title of this article made me laugh because I’m an introvert with social anxiety and prefer eating alone over eating with people. Most introverts are happy doing things alone which the extroverted world doesn’t seem to understand.
    I get anxiety when I eat with people because I’m afraid 1.)They’re judging what I’m eating 2.) Mindless, uninteresting conversations are a waste of my time 3.) I don’t like spending 3 hours at a restaurant 4.) Sometimes I like to read when eating and I can’t do that with people. I also think the stigma against eating alone is probably also primal and biological. When we do things alone, we’re separating from the pack which threatens our survival. #introvertpeopleproblems

  • Lil

    I started to so many things alone and it’s true, you become more mindful.

  • Laura Riches

    “It’s not just mealtimes — I avoid being alone with my thoughts in general. I listen to podcasts when walking by myself. I read until I’m too sleepy to think every night, lest I lie in bed and confront my mental regurgitations for too many minutes. As someone prone to anxiety, I treat my (often-anxious) brain like a kitten, distracting it as much as possible.”

    YES, thank you for putting into words, I thought I was the only one

    • Harling Ross

      <3

    • EMyrt

      You do realize that those habits will keep you from learning to be in the moment and make your anxiety worse?

  • Being single and travelling solo forced me to become an eat-out-alone person. In my travels around Europe and the US I didn’t want to miss out on sampling local cuisine in amazing restaurants, so I just learnt to deal with the initial anxiety of entering a restaurant alone and asking for a ‘table for one.’ And some of my fondest, wine-induced memories are flirting with cute French waiters, which definitely made up for the lack of dining companion!

  • _lauristia

    Hello Everyone!

    Here an alone-eater, same, I do it because I enjoy it, of course I love going out with friends and family, but sometimes I need quiet, silence, nobody disturbing my mind and going out by myself gives me that.

    It’s not a theory of what you must do in order to be… something, for me it’s peace.

  • Sarah

    Awesome! It is kind of weird…eating alone. I find on my lunch breaks (where I sit at a public table in the middle of a town square) that I feel super exposed. This almost seems worse than a restaurant alone. Also, I don’t know if this counts as a “task”, but I’ve found having your journal with you makes it a lot easier. You can take time to think and then record your thoughts as you’re alone…even though some people think you’re a food/wine critic when doing so (ha). Thanks for the read.

  • Aydan

    I love doing things alone and used to eat by myself ALL the time in Seattle — for some reason since moving to New York I haven’t felt quite the same way about it. I’ve gone to shows by myself, movies, etc. in New York, but not dinner yet–I think I just need to take the plunge!

  • Victor Ceccato

    YES! It bothers me so much when people criticize me for doing something else while I’m eating. I just want to be productive…

  • thevoyce

    Eating out alone is a normal NYC thing