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Now here’s something I haven’t touched upon when writing for the website about confidence and stress: the ‘art’ of eating out alone. An ultimate test of confidence levels. Eating at home is a completely different matter, as we are away from the public eye. At home we can eat as much as we like and as slovenly as we like. To be honest, we can do whatever takes our fancy: eating off the floor for all anyone else cares – though this would make a terrible mess!
Eating alone in public -on the other hand- is for most of us a skill that is learned out of necessity. For me, it was while working away from home travelling around and meeting people that led to me need to eat out alone. At first this was a personal fear as I had always eaten with another person or in a group of family or friends. Eating alone (especially in a sit-in bona-fide restaurant) was a strange concept and one that conjured up thoughts of lonely people, pitied by the waiters and customers.
This situation came up in conversation last weekend (for a reason I cannot remember) when speaking to a group of friends, one of whom travels about the land with work and agreed with me that the whole experience can be very stressful. For myself and my friend, we agreed that the main stresses involved were: deciding where eat, asking for a table for one, waiting for the meal to arrive (proving the most stressful time), feeling that other diners and staff were looking at us and what do to when eating the meal?
Like most things in life, over time and with practice you get used to this, but the techniques I discuss below have been useful for limiting the stress.
Firstly if having never eaten alone before, give it a go. I confess that it took me a while to take the plunge. At first I would go to a coffee shop and just buy a snack. After all, you see lots of people in coffee shops alone. Or failing that, I would eat on the move. This was ok at first but when travelling I would pass lovely cafes and restaurants but did not have the confidence to sit alone to eat in them. That is until one day I had a whole afternoon free before catching my train. Being very hungry, I decided to pluck up the courage and just walked into one to give it a go. Glad I did. The food smelt great from outside and tasted even better. This ‘opened the door’ to future lone eating and allowed me to best solve any other difficulties as follows.
When asking for a table remember, there is nothing unusual asking for a ‘table for one’. If you are clean and smart then the restraint will probably be glad to serve you. A good tip can be to arrive at the restaurant a little earlier than the really busy time if possible to ensure that you have a choice of two seat tables. After all, you don’t want to be alone on a table that seats four – nor will the restaurant owner!
Where possible sit where you feel comfortable and do not be afraid to ask to sit somewhere different if the table is available. Especially for the first few times eating out alone, you will probably feel awkward as most of us did at first. To enjoy the meal as much as possible (after all you are paying for it), try to sit where you feel most comfortable. I have found that sitting next to a large party of people is a no-no, or at the other extreme, sitting in an empty part of the restaurant can feel a little odd too. Everyone is different, but the best places seem to be near a window – though not one where you feel like ‘a goldfish in a bowl’. Preferably sit somewhere where you can get a good view of waiters and passers-by. Most people are generally quite pleasant and may smile, say hello or even have a chat.
Now seated; the wait for the meal can be the most stressful part of the whole experience. It can be difficult knowing where to look – not knowing what to do with your hands and what to do if other people look at us. To avoid –or at least to limit- this awkwardness, try to take something to read that will occupy this waiting time. This could be a book, newspaper, the menu (if it has not been taken away) or even the information on a wine/beer bottle. In these days of technology, it could be something on a mobile phone or IPad. Though the rules for messing about with mobiles or reading at the table are different from when you have a guest – i.e. it is not rude to do this when alone; getting out a full size laptop computer will still look a little odd and is really too much for a small set table, even if you are eating alone. It is not necessary to actually read anything – just simply to glance at whatever is there, then maybe glance around the restaurant. This just gives the eyes something to focus on and for some reason that I cannot explain, just having a magazine, newspaper or phone on the table seems to relieve the stress of ‘not knowing where to look’.
As far as eating goes, there seems to be all sorts of advice out there on how to ‘eat alone’. Some pundits advise looking down and eating (which sounds uncomfortable to me), others say to read while eating (which seems very difficult and potentially messy) or even to look around and smile at others (too casual). To be honest, I have found the best way is to just eat naturally, as you would if eating with others. If it helps, have something at the far end of the table to glance at, but just eat and look around, occasionally looking down at the meal or whatever is on the table – a natural approach. Admittedly, this is easier said than done. It is easier to do when facing a wall (especially if there is an interesting picture or decoration), but looking out across the restaurant is more interesting.
Whatever happens – and I agree this does take time, practice and confidence building: just think, what does it matter what other people think anyway. As it is, most people will probably think that you are on a business trip (especially if dressed in suit or smartly), or that you enjoy eating alone. Many people may actually admire you for being able to dine alone. Of course, there may be a few people who think ‘ah look at him/her all on their own – maybe their date hasn’t turned up’ or ‘they must be so lonely’. With most people this opinion will probably be out of sympathy anyway – not nastiness. Then again, what does it matter what other people think. You know what you are doing and why you are there – and after all, you will probably never see any of the other diners again; maybe never even visit the restaurant again.
These techniques have been useful for me in the past and I hope that they are helpful. Eating alone for many of us is an important and essential part of working life. Even if just for pleasure, it can be an important skill to have. While it is always nicer to sit with another person or in a group to eat, being able to eat alone opens up a whole new culinary world. It enables us to eat a good meal when travelling to distant locations (so not relying on fast food and snacks). It can be useful when wishing to ‘try out’ a restaurant before taking others there, and last but not least, eating alone occasionally can actually be quite an enjoyable experience. Here’s to happy and stress-less eating.