When I walk up to a restaurant alone, it isn’t immediately clear that I will stay that way; I could be meeting someone or picking up a to-go order. I don’t commit until the host asks me how many are in my party. “Just one,” I say, mentally scolding myself for saying “just” again. There is nothing “just” about me. I am nothing to apologize for with an awkward smile. But the habit is hard to break.
I used to hate the idea of being watched as I ate alone. My mind would spin wildly, imagining the thoughts of other diners who might be sneaking glances filled with curiosity or, worse, pity. I worried that I would be seen as pathetic, or perhaps that I would actually be pathetic. Still, there was something that seemed brave and self-assured about the people I saw eating alone in public. I wanted to see what it was like.
My first time dining out alone was on a business trip. In these circumstances, it isn’t so unusual to claim a table all to yourself. I started small, eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant instead of ordering room service and seeking out small cafes near the conferences I was attending. Sometimes I would read a book while I ate my bowl of soup or Cobb salad. It was possible that people felt sorry for me, the girl eating alone, but if they had asked, I would have told them that I was in town on business, that I didn’t know a soul in their city. I was confident in my reasons for dining solo.
Back in my hometown, I found it harder to access the confidence of knowing that I belonged at a table for one. Sometimes I would ask for a seat at the bar of a little American bistro with amazing shrimp and polenta. I would sip my lemonade and chat with the bartender, watching her create martinis and Manhattans with a practiced hand. Sitting at the bar felt less forlorn, even if I was ordering dinner.
Still, on a very few, precious occasions, I have truly dined out alone, quieting my own nerves as I walk in. I keep my phone in my bag, resisting the urge to check my email or scroll through Twitter. Instead of beginning to catch up with a friend or asking opening date questions, I ask myself what I’d like to drink, taking in all of my options before letting my eyes move to the food. If I allow myself to become immersed in the experience, I find that I am able to relax in a rare way, and when the server tells me the specials, I never have to ask him to repeat himself.
I am fully present as I take my first sip of wine or fresh rosemary soda. Suddenly, all of the flavors seem more vibrant. I notice when I am full and wrap up the rest for later. There is no one there to sway my choice to have dessert or not.
I’ll likely never stop enjoying a good meal or a well-balanced cocktail among lovely people. The food and drink is important, of course, but really, the joy is in the company; we share a meal but also our stories and ourselves. Even humble food can be elevated by the right companion. When I take myself out to eat, my dining companion is me. I have never once been disappointed.