As a food writer and restaurant critic, I often find myself eating alone in restaurants. It might be because quite by chance I happen upon somewhere that looks interesting and make a spur of the moment decision to nip in and see if they have room for me. On other occasions it’s because I have a deadline to meet and have failed to persuade someone to be my dinner date, or my companion has cried off.
Given the choice, I would almost always prefer to eat with other people because I believe so much of the joy of food is in the shared experience – but needs must.
Travel is all about the food
The rule of thumb when it comes to restaurant reviewing is two starters, two mains, two desserts, plus cocktails (if that’s a speciality) and wine, as this gives the restaurant a better chance to show off its strengths than being judged on a single dish in each category. So, if I’m eating alone, I have to order enough food for two people, which – as well as being embarrassing – can be a bit of a giveaway, especially in my hometown of Dublin where restaurants often keep photos of reviewers up on the wall.
Funnily enough, although you might think that it’s less intimidating to eat alone in a casual restaurant, solo dining in a high-end restaurant can be a delightful experience – especially if there is a tasting menu with matching wines that merits real concentration so that its nuances can be fully appreciated. Expensive restaurants are used to looking after business travellers eating alone and know how to put them at ease.
And while I endure these slightly awkward – although often highly enjoyable – experiences for the sake of my work, I was surprised to find a number of female travellers actively enjoy the experience of eating out unaccompanied – which, for many globetrotters, is a longstanding source of low-level anxiety.
Perks of dining solo
Martha de Lacey is a cook who hosts supper clubs and cookery classes in her home in East London. She is also an intrepid solo traveller. For Martha, travel is all about the food, and her enthusiasm for everything from kebab joints in Istanbul to taco stops in Puerto Escondido, as documented on her Instagram, is envy-inducing. Eating alone while travelling doesn’t faze her at all.
'I started eating by myself when I worked as a journalist in London,' says Martha. 'I was a film and music critic and spent lots of time out of the office, hanging around between movies or before gigs with no plus one’.
'I got used to it and after a while, if I was going on holiday with friends, I started tacking on a few days on my own at the end of a trip, so that I could explore on my own.'
'I got into the swing of solo travelling – I like being by myself and the peace that it offers. And when it comes to food there are no compromises or sharing. I like being able to order exactly what I want – I’m quite an adventurous eater and sometimes if I’m with friends who aren’t into trying calves’ brains or whatever weird thing is on the menu then I don’t get to order what I really want.'
'Eating alone you can concentrate on the food and you drink less – sometimes when I’m out with a gang of friends and having a good time I find that by the end of the evening I can’t remember what I ate because I’ve been concentrating on the company and conversation.'
Eating alone is easier on the road
Holly Pratt Kelly is a trainee solicitor in Dublin and travels whenever she gets the opportunity; she recently returned from a three-week solo trip to Malaysia.
'I love the independence of travelling alone and eating on my own doesn’t bother me – it’s not something I do in Ireland, so I enjoy it when I’m away.'
'I ask people I know for recommendations or seek out tips from travel bloggers. The only place in Malaysia that I sometimes felt uncomfortable was Kuala Lumpur, which is strange because it’s the capital and you’d think they would be used to seeing women travelling on their own. In Penang, I went to hawker markets where you order from stalls and food is delivered to your table. There was entertainment and good people-watching, but I always had my Kindle with me.'
'I do tend to over-order when I’m on my own, because there are so many things that I want to try! Even when solo travelling, sometimes I prefer to eat in a group – often you end up meeting people on a bus or in a hostel and go out to eat together.'
Eat local but consider your safety
Mairead Ryan is a PhD student at Cambridge University who is just back from a five-month solo trip to South America, travelling through Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia.
'When I was younger I would have found the idea of travelling – and especially eating – alone intimidating, but now I feel very comfortable with it. When a waiter or waitress knows that you are on your own they make a bigger effort to make small talk, which is nice – if you bring your book or phone then no one talks to you; it’s a signal that you want to be left alone.'
'I wouldn’t say that I am particularly into food, but in South America on the ‘gringo trail’, it would be very easy to eat falafel and vegan bowls wherever you go, as the restaurants cater mainly to wealthy western tourists.'
'But that food is out of step with what the locals eat, and I prefer to avoid those restaurants even though I like falafel as much as the next person! If you have made the effort to travel, why would you not make the effort to eat something other than a falafel bowl?'
'In South America, the first question people usually ask is, ‘Are you single?’ – I think there is a perception that you are travelling because you want to meet someone, and local female travellers are quite a rarity. If you leave the very touristy places, people want to know why you are there, they are curious about you and want to give you advice. I found this particularly in Colombia and Argentina.'
'One thing you have to think about as a woman travelling alone, from a safety point of view, is getting home from the restaurant afterwards. In Argentina, for instance, most people don’t sit down to dinner until 10.30pm, but that would mean coming back to your hostel very late. I always ask locals outside of the place where I’m staying for restaurant recommendations, as hotel and hostel staff are usually incentivised to recommend places.'
'I do bring a nice dress with me in my rucksack so that I can get dressed up and go to a nice restaurant every couple of weeks – you get high quality food and, depending on your destination, it’s often still cheap compared to home. Those are the solo meals that I enjoy most.'
So next time you're out on the road, why not try making it a table for one? You might find solo dining is more to your tastes than you realised.