The Lone Diner

Ever eaten a meal on your own? Well of course you have – student life is all about that cheeky Domino’s in bed whilst binging out on a Netflix marathon, it’s the sort of stuff you can’t get away with when you’re at home. But have you ever gone out to a restaurant to eat alone?
Lately, I keep seeing articles about the growing trend of eating on your own, its social impacts and causes as well as some of its ‘weirder aspects’. For example, if you fancy a bite out alone whilst in Japan, you can pop along to a Tokyo restaurant that offers cuddly toys as your dinner guest. If staring into the hand-sewn eyes of a teddy bear isn’t quite your thing though, you can always jet across to Amsterdam where the world’s first solo dining restaurant, Eenmaal, has opened up.
Studies show that despite the world’s population growing every day, we’re becoming increasingly lonely people. One restaurant consultant spoke to the BBC recently about why dining alone is becoming more popular, citing higher divorce rates and more single people than ever before – but I’m not so sure that’s the case. Could eating out alone just be fun? When a two course meal might cost less than an indulgent takeaway, why not have a good meal in a great environment rather than hide away in your living room with a pizza box?
Although a recent survey quoted in CNBC shows that roughly one third of evening meals are consumed alone, for most Britons, the idea of dining out alone is just plain weird. Even self-confessed solo diner-enthusaists admit to occasional embarrassment, sometimes eating early to avoid peak eating times and busy restaurants, and often avoiding sitting at tables in favour of more casual bar seats. Britain just doesn’t seem ‘hip’ enough to embrace single dining fully – perhaps excluding parts of Soho, Camden and Brighton where it might catch on, but frankly, in those places, anything goes! Regardless of the fact I live in Britain, this increasing global trend seems to be the latest thing to do… so I tried it out.


Booking the table
My experience starts with the part I’m perhaps most nervous about – making my reservation. I’ve chosen Rustique, a popular French restaurant near Lendal Bridge recommended to me by a friend for a delicious and well priced set menu.
The waiter seems confused on the phone: “So, just to confirm you want a table for just one person only?…. Just on your own?” – As if I’ve forgotten about my date. I try and sound like I’m an important business person who needs to wine and dine in town for just one night before I jet off to Tokyo and Paris, but my hesitant reply of “…um yes?” doesn’t quite cut it. I wonder whether I was only allowed to eat at 6pm and no later because they wanted more covers at peak times – I start feeling that single diners aren’t too welcome because restaurants lose money.


I arrive five minutes early for my reservation and I’m standing in the foyer waiting to be seated – I’m being avoided and it’s clear everybody thinks I’m waiting for someone else which makes me feel a little awkward again, but I’m determined to see this through; besides I’ve not eaten for hours and my stomach is telling me bottling it and settling for a Big Mac just won’t cut it.
The waitress eventually takes me to my table, as we walk over I feel I have to justify why I’m on my own and I explain to her I’m writing an article on eating out and whether she’d mind if I took some photos. Suddenly I feel so much more at ease with an excuse as to why I’m on my own – I’m not sure if this counts as cheating. At least the staff don’t think I’m a loner now.


The thing I’ve noticed about ordering and eating on your own is that it’s so much faster! There’s no chat before you look at the menu, no deliberating or “Oh let me tell you this really long anecdote about salmon seeing as it’s on the menu” from the person opposite.
I order within minutes of sitting down and my courses come at lightning speed – perhaps this is because the staff all think I’m a food critic since I’ve told them I’m writing for a paper, but it is genuinely delicious. I start texting and tweeting about how good my food is and that’s when I start to feel lonely. It’s not the same as eating a sandwich on your own, you’re allowed to rave about a really great pudding but there’s nobody to tell.
I look up from my phone and there’s a woman staring at me from another table. By my main course, the restaurant is really full with couples all chatting and I notice it’s mostly women staring at me. I wonder if they think I’ve been stood up but I’ve decided in some kind of sassy ‘I-don’t-need-no-man-to-enjoy-mozzarella-sticks’ way that I’ll just carry on regardless. I’ve been careful in choosing my outfit to not look like I really am on a date because I don’t want to appear tragic.


A Waiter’s Wisdom
I have a lovely waiter who even takes my photo for this article (that was when I got the most stares, but frankly anyone who eats on their own and asks for photographic evidence must seem a little eccentric). We chat about single customers and he tells me he’s never seen a British person eat alone before, only international students and tourists which is really interesting – clearly we British aren’t quite acclimatised to the idea yet.

“We get a lot of couples who play on their phones all night, so they may as well be eating on their own!” he jokes – but actually this really resonates with me. The number of times I’ve been on dates and we’ve both checked our Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and texts before bothering to embark upon some kind of romantic conversation is quite frankly shameful! I try not to play with my phone too much after that and experience what it’s really like to be completely on your own whilst eating, I notice people aren’t staring at me much any more.


Overall experience
Odd. But a kind of quite nice odd. I didn’t feel as self-conscious as I thought I might feel at the start – perhaps because I was so hungry I couldn’t care less about the empty chair opposite me. I didn’t have to share my amazing pudding and there was no complicated maths about splitting the bill at the end and accidentally ending up paying for a beer I never had.
I found it strange that there were times I didn’t feel completely comfortable being alone, because I often go to coffee shops and sit down by myself during the day and I love it. Eating alone during the day seems to be a totally different thing to just a couple of hours later. I got the impression that the staff felt just the same as the customers who stared at me and my waiter agreed that he’d personally never go out for a meal on his own, that people in Britain think it’s a bit odd.


Would I do it again?
Yes, I actually would – but with some changes. I’d certainly choose a more casual not couple-y restaurant, perhaps somewhere like Wagamama where there’s communal seating or with more relaxed cuisine like Mexican food instead of fine French dining.