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How to survive eating alone at a restaurant

Eating alone is by far one of the most common fears when travelling on your own, or in general when being out alone and needing a bite. It is so strong and widespread that many people give up trying to travel alone altogether because of it. Unfortunately. Travelling alone is an amazing experience and a great way to challenge yourself, eating alone is only part of the challenge and not as big as to make one renounce a trip.

But the reality for most people is that eating alone is so frightening that they either avoid it altogether, ordering food at their place, or eat in places where is much more informal to order and eat, like a fast food. Fine both of course but if the fear stops you to try the local cuisine or that fancy restaurant that is popular right now or, even, make you give up on travelling alone, then it is a big problem.

Woman eating alone at a restaurant
Woman eating alone at a restaurant

I had a lot of the fear when I first travelled alone. I took plenty of measures to avoid giving up travelling because of it. Over the years I finally managed to overcome it thanks to a few tricks that forced me to go out anyway. So, for anybody who fears eating alone at a restaurant, how to survive it?

Understand the fear

If you had to follow just one advice from this article, make it this: understand the origin of the fear. That is 90% of it all.

I can’t know all the possible origins of the fear nor the specific one in your case but it generally comes down to feeling judged, somehow. Either we feel that eating alone is for “losers” or that it is inappropriate or that is utterly boring (and we have ADHD). One of these feelings is the major culprit of our fear or some variations of them. Let’s check one by one.

Being judged as a “loser”

The feeling of eating alone is only for “losers” is clearly society-induced. We have been told that “being successful” is having more, more money, more friends, more followers, more women and so on that showing up in a public place without anybody else will instantly communicate the opposite, that we have a scarcity of friends, in this case, that we couldn’t manage to have at least one with us for a meal. That identifies us as “losers”.

I don’t have to tell you that more doesn’t automatically equals to better and that quality is more important than quantity. Society will still pressure you into having more. It may be hard or near impossible to break up from this inducted belief. What helped me was to consider the experience as a value, at the same level as one more friend or one more follower and so on. The experience of trying a new restaurant, their cuisine, was an enrichment to myself and a proof that I was more “successful” as I had one experience more than others who didn’t go to the same restaurant yet. It didn’t matter that I was alone because the “success” came from the experience of dining at the restaurant, not with whom I would dine with. I had a restaurant more under my belt and even if other people had more friends or money or women or whatever else, they didn’t have that restaurant as one of their experiences.

Assorted Chess Pieces
Assorted Chess Pieces

Hard to snap you into believing this in one instant but I hope it is good food for thought for you.

Feeling inappropriate

The feeling of inappropriateness in eating alone comes more probably from our own beliefs or from our family. Perhaps we have been told that eating out is a social experience and that if we are alone we shouldn’t go at all. Or that, especially for women, eating alone is risky or can attract all the sorts of ill-intended people. The latter may be true but may be also when going shopping or just walking down the road yet we still do both all the time. It doesn’t have to be valid only when eating out alone. We perceive it so.

I can’t fix your beliefs with an article, obviously. But if you feel that eating alone at a restaurant is inappropriate, ponder on yours and see where they come from. You will most probably realize they are self-induced or imposed by the family and aren’t truly yours. After this realization they will have a much less strong take on you.

Eating alone is boring

That is perhaps the most common and the one that I still have somehow. It will perhaps never go away in full but if you have it, it can be greatly reduced.

ADHD folks will feel the pain the most: being stuck in a place for half an hour with nobody to talk to and no entertainment of any sorts. Even for people not suffering from any mental issue it can be a quite boring experience.

Yet why eating alone at a restaurant is supposed to be boring and not drinking alone at a bar? After all in the latter we drink the same drink for half an hour, while at a restaurant we can taste different dishes, drink different drinks during the same time. Yet we don’t consider a bar “boring”, or a café for instance. Bars are thought to be places where we socialize, with friends or strangers, thus “exciting” in itself, while at a cafe is customary to be seen reading or using your laptop, so “working” or “relaxing”, totally alone.

The restaurants are the exception, somehow. Thus, first of all, ponder how actually they are “boring”. I would say not more than any other place you can eat or drink out. Focus your time on experiencing the food, the ambient, the drinks, to do some people-watching, and you will see that the time will fly. Start thinking that restaurants have their share of distractions, not are devoid of.

Focaccia with Tomato
Focaccia with Tomato

And, if you can’t or aren’t that interested in the food itself, why not bringing your own entertainment? Society still frowns upon reading while eating, especially at more chic restaurants. I would avoid reading alone at a fancy restaurant myself but find no issues in bringing a book, or my ebook reader, with me to a pizzeria or a medium-quality restaurant. Nobody ever told me not to and nobody ever looked at me strangely for doing so. Bring your own entertainment freely, do not fear being badly judged because of it. It is time for yourself, so why not using it to read along with tasting good food?

Another thing to ponder on: why do we spend hours with our faces buried in our mobile phones anywhere but if we do it at a restaurant is considered weird or downright wrong? There’s no logic in this, only society’s expectations and customs. Use your mobile phones freely. It is your time and if you’re alone, well, use it for things you would do alone. As long as you are not rude to staff or other guests, there’s no reason not to do anything you fancy.

How to eat alone at a restaurant

The most important advice is already being said: understand the fear and where it comes from. Once you do, you will see how much less grip it has on you and you will behave as you would prefer at a restaurant.

Appetizers made by a chef
Appetizers made by a chef

Until then, which admittedly can take months or years, how do you survive eating alone at a restaurant? A few more practical advices then:

  • Make the food the centre of the experience: you’re out to eat after all, so why not making the food the primary part of the whole experience? Choose dishes that entices you, that are new to you, take your time choosing the wine pairing (or ask for advice to the waiter), taste slowly the food when it comes, trying to recognize the ingredients, the methods of cooking and the possible cuisine influences. Try to think of how to make it yourself, how to cook a variation of it at home, compare it in your mind to the other restaurants you tried in your life, making a sort of ranking of the best ones and so on. Focus on the food throughout the time out and you will accomplish 2 objectives: you will look like a food connoisseur and most of the time will fly as you’re focused and not constantly looking for a distraction.
  • Choose your restaurant beforehand: don’t ever go out without knowing where to eat. It will lead to countless minutes wandering around trying to summon the courage to get in somewhere. It is the most difficult action of the whole experience, make it as easy as possible. Therefore, research before leaving your room the restaurants you want to try and go to the first in the list, directly. Do not give your brain time to put into you doubts, decide the place you want to eat at and just go straightly there. No delays, no second thoughts.
  • Take the time to reorder or catch up: while you’re travelling you will find a lack of pauses to take care of some common tasks that you do while at home. Chatting with friends, sending a message to your parents, reading the news, checking the pictures you shot the day before and so on. While waiting for the food to be served it is a perfect moment to do some catch up on these activities. Use your mobile phone in these spare moments.
  • Read: Do not fear bringing your own entertainment with you. Be it a physical book or an ebook reader, or even your tablet/mobile phone with a book or article to read, use the pauses between food to read. Especially if you are out lunching or having breakfast, it is much more common and less weird than you may think. Just avoid reading and eating at the same time, that is the part considered the most weird usually. Leave time to taste the food.
  • Fake: pretend you’re eating alone for a reason, true or not. Perhaps you’re a food critic (they usually go alone), or you are writing a book about the local cuisine or the best places to eat in the city. Perhaps you are waiting for a friend (you can even tell the waiter so but order for yourself anyway while you wait for your imaginary friend) or are a business man/woman and can’t waste time while eating so you spend most of it reading or pretend working. Whatever comes to your mind, it doesn’t matter what you pretend as long as it is something believable to your brain, so it doesn’t prevent you to eat out alone. If you are into role-playing this is your chance to shine 🙂

Eating alone at a restaurant hasn’t to be scary

Whatever you come up with to make the experience less difficult, whatever of my advices work better for you, implement it. Don’t let the fear stop you from eating out or, worse, even travelling alone. It is a challenge, true, and one in which many people fail at. You don’t have to be among them. The fact you are reading this article already shows you are fighting the fear and that is a first step in overcoming it.

What are your techniques to eat out alone at a restaurant? What have you identified as the origin of your fear of it? Let me know in the comments.

Cover Photo by Waldemar Brandt from Pexels

Neapolitan programmer, traveller and metalhead, co-author of PaperSounds blog.

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