Eating alone at a restaurant: what's the big deal?

It may be a faux pas in Japan and considered pretty odd everywhere else, but dining alone doesn't mean there's a lonely diner

In an era in which the power to shock is ever diminished, admitting you enjoy going to restaurants on your own can still unnerve the most desensitised soul. Indeed in some quarters it is simply a problem that requires some curious remedies. Step forward Tokyo-based Moomin Café which offers lone diners a stuffed animal toy to fill the vacant seat opposite, a questionable logic if the intention is to minimise the individual's humiliation.

For many, it is quite simply a solitary step too far, just as inexplicable as, say, being single through choice or not wanting children.      

But as members of this exclusive club will testify, far from missing out, the experience often reveals what you’re managing to avoid, most notably the conversational imbalance that can blight many a restaurant tête-à-tête.

No dish should have to compete with a Rioja-fuelled self-absorbed diatribe that reduces the person sitting opposite to a nodding dog. I’ll take my own company any day over being on the receiving end of one of those dreary one-sided commentaries, the only respite being a toilet break or phone call.

Then there are those insights into human nature that would otherwise go unnoticed if you had company yourself. An enduring curiosity are those couples who barely speak at all, staring numbly in the middle distance, as if looking for something else. It may be unclear as to whether the silence is comfortable or uncomfortable, but there is no doubt over the mutual boredom.

You notice the strained exchanges between the weekend parents and their offspring, joined at the table by the raw baggage of the recent marital break-up, frustration bubbling over in bitter bursts: “You're only saying you don't like lemon because your mother doesn’t!”

Most importantly you can set your own pace and agenda, basic but prerequisite for any enjoyable meal but a challenge when dining a deux and your appetites out of sync.

The friend who orders two starters instead of a main is at the top of the list. Seven mange touts and courgette fritter later, they're done, while you have barely made a dent in your mound of linguine. The imbalance is there for all to see, as they gingerly sip a diet coke on their pristine side of the table, while you're drowning in sauce and spills that come with a hearty hunger, feeling monitored and pressured.

You’re craving a panna cotta and coffee to finish but your friend doesn't do puddings or for that matter, coffee, so you either leave unsated or eat it under duress and the watchful gaze of someone who was ready to leave an hour ago.

Most poignantly, how you are treated as a solo diner can be a true measure of a restaurant’s integrity. If your request for a table for one request sparks a flicker of disdain or hesitation then the establishment is one to rule out for any return visit.

You can almost sense the reluctance as they lead you to your table, an excess of white linen and paraphernalia, their thoughts consumed by the anticipated modesty of the bill and tip as they ponderously remove the additional wine glass - what a lot of fuss and bother for one person.

It is on these albeit, rare occasions that you want to be armed with the lone diner’s trusty back up - reading material. That doesn’t mean keeping your face glued to the page, terrified of any unwanted eye contact, but a newspaper can be good prop if you’re not made to feel as welcome as you should.

To eat out alone is the ultimate indulgence, a chance to dine free from any boorish commentary, while observing the curiosities in my fellow diners which never fails to entertain.

Caroline Bullock is a business journalist with a passion for food and restaurants

Life and Style
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