“A lot of people find solo dining an unpleasant experience, and it is certainly true that many restaurants can make it intimidating as they lead you through a crowded restaurant to a seat where you will be so conspicuous that you should have a large neon sign above your head reading “Sir William of No Mates”. Others in the restaurant will stare at you, many will compose their facial features to express pity, others contempt. All will be hugely glad they are not in your situation.”
-Simon Makumdar, in his book Eat My Globe
It is frequently brought to my attention that I am atypical. Recently, I was speaking with a female friend and she shared she has never seen a movie by herself because it freaks her out. We then started to discuss dining and the solo question came up again – many people are uncomfortable eating alone inside and outside their abode.
While I think any meal is better shared with friends, by circumstance and my own nature I frequently dine alone. Apparently I do so much more often than a typical person. I do have some advantages in the area. I am an only child so I am well practiced at entertaining myself. I have lived alone almost as long as I have lived in the company of others. Because I have rarely had the luck in life to have instant access to people that have the combination of the time, money and interest to pursue my passions to the extreme extent that I do, I often head off on my own since I figure if I wait for someone to be ready…..I’ll keep waiting. As for temperament, for those of you that follow the Myers Briggs, I am an INTJ, a rare personality type known for being fiercely independent.
All of the this being said, I decided to start asking around about the art of eating alone. This is a summary of what I found (accuracy is +/- 91%). Women are more uncomfortable with dining alone than men. Most of us seem comfortable dining out sans company at breakfast and lunch. Dinner seems to be the apex of discomfort. Friday and Saturday night solo dining is absolutely feared especially if it is at a fine dining establishment such as Alana’s or the Refectory.
For those of you new to the world of solo dining, I would suggest reading the book – Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant. The book is a buffet of stories about eating, cooking and dining alone. For some a meal shielded from the world is a can of cold refried beans and for others it is an extravagant meal without the pomp and circumstance needed by the presence of others. I discovered the writer/blogger Erin Ergenbright in the book and have found her to be a great source for Portland area dining establishments and advice in general (guess where one of my next trips will be).
It you are ready to test the waters of independent dining – here are a few suggestions from years of experience:
Take a magazine, not a book.
A book says to people – “don’t approach me, I am deep in thought” and it says, “I am a nerd, I eat alone all the time”. That can be a good thing – if I don’t want to be bothered, I take a book. I more often take a magazine along for the meal. Magazines are easier manhandle and maneuver around appetizers, entrees and cocktails. If you spill on a magazine, no big deal, it you spill on a book – well – it may bring you to tears or get you in deep trouble with the library. You are likely to read through a magazine while eating a meal which allows the opportunity to leave the place with two accomplishments – a completed magazine and a finished meal. A magazine says, come interrupt me… if you must, while a book says – I am here to hide so don’t come and fill my water glass when I am thirsty. Magazines are great for quick bursts of distraction between bites.
Buy an iPhone.
I hate those people. You know them. People that cannot and will not disconnect from their electronic worlds and must interface and interact with their handheld devices constantly – even during a conversation or in the company of their companions. Not cool. I have started to do this on occasion and I think I have caught myself most times. When dining alone, a “crackberry” is OK, but an iPhone is so much more fun. It is also the perfect tool for a food writer or food enthusiast. Having quick access to notes, a camera, the Internet, Urbanspoon, etc., makes discreet food research much more viable. While between courses you can make lists, check e-mail, twitter about your meal instead of twittering your thumbs and have an quick and easy way to avoid unwanted attention or conversation. This is the perfect tool for creating a “shield” from others at a bar. Or it can be a quick way to strike up a conversation if someone is looking for directions or hoping to settle a bet.
Sit at the bar
Most restaurants will serve you the full menu at the bar or in some cases offer an even better and cheaper bar menu. In between bites if there is too much dead time – you can always drink. Bartenders are used to the fine art of chatting with customers that want the company or drifting away when chatter is not on your plate for the night.
Take a notebook
As much as I love my MacBook, when I need to get big thinking done or reason through a challenge, a notebook and a pen can’t be beat. If I am not writing and plotting then I still have plenty to do. I find my best thoughts come when I am unplugged and only focused on one thing – eating. I am constantly making lists of things I need to do when I plug back in. I find the piece of paper a good guide to get everything done. And I find crumbling the list and pitching it in the recycling bin provides a tangible sense of accomplishment, you can’t get that from a deleted word document.
Don’t chat on your cell phone
Sitting in an eatery chatting on your phone is rude and among my biggest pet peeves. It disrupts digestion (thanks Alana). I would love for public places to bring back phone booths to serve as containment areas for long, loud cell phone talkers so they can take their conversations into a private place instead of a public forum. If you are bored between courses, try the strategies I have listed above or send a text. Unless someone is dying there is no reason why I need to listen to your conversation in the small spaces of a restaurant…take your phone and yourself outside.
Surefire solo dining experiences:
OK, now that you are mentally prepared and have some strategies for killing time between courses, here are a few suggestions for your solo flight into solitary dining.
Northstar caters to large parties and individual diners with several types of eating spaces. There are large communal tables where people can intermingle. There are also round counters with a center placed pillar to shield from eye contact and other counters placed at the windows facing out to the views of the street. At Northstar, you place your order at the counter, get a number so your meal can be delivered to you and while you are waiting there are plenty of magazines to read for free or buy for later.
I am deeply devoted to Deepwood. Their bar menu and cocktail selections provide variety at a good value. If you have time to kill between bites – just read the menu and the wine list – each provide entertainment for twenty minutes or more. The bar staff can talk food and spirits in depth if you are looking for some education to pass your time.
Nancy’s is the original eat it and beat it destination in Clintonville. For dinner, you have one or two choices for your meal. So you do not need to waste time or conversation with the ordering process. You could probably get by with just pointing if need be. You pick what you want to eat. You eat it. And then, you beat it. With an empty stool and some focus you could be in and out in under five minutes. Or if it is slow, you can leisurely hang out, read the paper and talk local comings and goings to your heart’s content.
If you have more tips, please share them.