Restaurants are all about the social experience, we’re told. They’re a must-visit with friends — brunches! group dining! Sunday funday! You can even be seated immediately, if you’re willing to share a table with strangers. Nobody explicitly says “dining alone is for losers,” but when Steve Martin makes an extended, painfully funny joke about it, you know there’s a social taboo at play. Well friends, there shouldn’t be. I think dining alone is a joy and the numbers are slowly starting to side with me.
The Waitrose Survey, a vast, sprawling look at how the British eat, found that 78% of respondents saw dining alone as more socially acceptable than it was five years ago (sadly, 46% have still never dined out alone). Americans are a bit ahead of the trend, but it’s often chalked up to the increasing number of diners enraptured by a device rather than real humans. I see how that feels like a harbinger of the apocalypse, but even a silent meal with a device satisfies something we all need: An oasis of quiet.
When I first moved out of my parents’ house and to a city, I didn’t know many people. I had a crappy job, a roommate who was rapidly becoming an ex-friend, no social life to speak of, and most of my at-home entertainment involved staring at a screen. At the same time, for the first time in what felt like years, I had no commitments. Bar my commute and my job, my time was my own. Open. Expansive. That’s rare and I wanted to celebrate it.
It’s odd that dining alone has a social stigma, because a constant loop of commute, home, TV, commute, home, TV seems a lot less healthy, honestly. Dining alone meant exploring an unfamiliar city, trying new foods, visiting new neighborhoods. I ate at vegan Chinese restaurants and Indian buffets. I found tiny taco shops and holes in the wall where I was the only customer speaking English. It helped that I was willing to eat pretty much anything — turns out durian tastes pretty good, if you have no idea what it is and order it in a lassi-like drink. Suddenly, I was a flavor explorer.
In this solo-food era, I also had my fair share of pizza and beer. And I didn’t always dine alone, either. But those years where I was idle and was willing to explore probably did more for my tastes, and frankly my social skills, than any supper club. I know food now, and I know it because I developed my palate. I took time to think about it. I slowed down and chewed.
Keep in mind, the root of this whole stigma is that you’re eating alone because you have no other choice. But that’s the thing; if you choose to dine alone — whether you do it because you want a moment to yourself, or to treat yourself to a nice meal, or just because you’d rather be among people without having to be with people — why in the world would that be odd? Eating alone can, and should, be a whole lot of things: A small adventure in an otherwise monotonous day, a moment to center yourself before a big event, or even just a simple step away from the constant rush of the modern world. Just like all of us need at least a little bit of friendship, we all need a little bit of solitude, too.