In Defense of Eating Alone
Last night, like many nights before, I ate alone. In public. On purpose. I sat at the bar in a well-regarded Italian restaurant and ordered a bowl of spaghetti and a glass of wine. I picked a seat in the middle of the bar, which was not crowded, and was polite, if not necessarily chatty, with the bartender-cum-server. No one approached me during my meal, which was delicious.
This is not a complaint. This is, if anything, a boast. I love eating alone. Not all the time, but often. Why? Let me count the reasons.
I talk to people all day long. Whether I'm reporting for a story or dealing with any one of the ten thousand questions that come up every day as managing editor at a national food website, I'm interacting with other human beings almost nonstop for 10-12 hours every day. After work, I'm often at events that require continued social interaction. Don't get me wrong: I like talking to people. I have a very active professional and social life that fulfills me on many levels. But sometimes, I need a break.
I worked from home for a long time, and have traveled alone for months on end. So I'm used to spending a fair amount of time in my own head. I like it in there. And since I like to eat, too, it's only natural that I should combine two enjoyable activities into one. I often come up with ideas (like the one to write this article) whilst dining solo.
There are other, more practical reasons for eating alone, too: at perpetually crowded restaurants (I'm looking at you, Momofuku Noodle Bar), it's easier to get a single seat at the bar than a four-top. When you eat alone, it's typically cheaper, faster, and you can order exactly as you desire, without having to calibrate around your dining companion's tastes (if you're the sort who shares food with your dining companion, that is). If you're looking for some quiet time, eating alone will give it to you, though conversely, if you're looking for conversation, flying solo and looking friendly often invites it.
People have all sorts of coping mechanisms for the perceived awkwardness of eating alone: bringing a book,* which I find useful, as I like to read, but not strictly necessary, particularly if you're sitting at a crowded bar area (or, as noted above, looking for conversation). Which brings me to another common technique—choosing restaurants with bar-style seating, which makes solo diners appear less conspicuous. I typically eat at the bar when eating alone, though I'm unashamed to recall the time I took myself out to a very nice meal at a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant and was seated at a two-top.
*A note on reading material etiquette: I find books, magazine, newspapers, and tablets all acceptable, but diving headfirst into your cell phone—even if you're reading a book on it—can appear rude, at least to the casual observer. No matter what you're reading, put it down and make friendly eye contact when ordering or otherwise interacting with staff or guests.
Restaurant staff have never stared at me like I have two heads for dining alone—quite the contrary. On the nights when I'm feeling talky, a few questions about the menu or chef have lead to great conversations and occasionally a comped drink; but it's easy to order politely and burrow down in that book if you'd rather not chat—a party of one can be a welcome break for a swamped waiter or bartender in the weeds.
Some of my best food memories revolve around shared meals, with many plates passed for many hours among many busy mouths. Foodways and folklore often revolve around the pleasure and ritual of eating with others, correctly noting the connection between sharing food and sharing love. But there's a different kind of pleasure that comes from paying undivided attention to what's going on on your plate or in your head. It's a quieter satisfaction, but in a world with so much noise, sometimes more deeply felt.
I know I'm not, well, you know, in my love of eating alone. Heck, there's a whole book about it: "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone," a series of essays from writers ranging from MFK Fisher to Haruki Murakami ruminating on the act (here's Fisher's iconic Gourmet essay on the subject, published in 1948). I'd suggest we all get together to celebrate, but that would ruin the fun.
So, readers, how do you feel about eating alone?