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.”
“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?