Marcel Theroux: Lonely tales of a long-distance diner

Something to declare

There's something melancholy about eating out alone in a foreign city. The basic mood of the lone diner is captured in Edward Hopper's painting, Nighthawks. Not the couple in the middle, who are clearly on their way home after a night out, but the guy with his back to the viewer, who's jet-lagged and hoping that's his credit card in his pocket and not his hotel key card.

You can pretend to yourself that it's a big adventure, take a paperback, chat to the barman, ask the waiter about the specials. But doesn't your heart sink a little thinking you're going to have to do it all again tomorrow? At some point, surely, you're going to crack and order room service, or end up in Subway.

I think it's worse in extrovert Latin cities: sitting next to a table where three generations of Florentines or Madrileños are carousing, while you nurse your tragic looking paella for one. I'm full of admiration for the lone diners, male or female, who style it out with their copy of Middlemarch and tiny carafe of wine. In Lyon recently, I saw a happy lone diner in a bouchon savouring the bouquet of his wine and tucking into a plateful of pike quenelles. But whenever I'm that person, I feel a little ridiculous and a little bit homesick. And even when I do it, and it's OK, it's not an experience I commend highly: it's there with flossing and loading the dishwasher – certainly necessary, probably useful, but not fun. I'd be curious to know what the experience is like for solitary female diners around the world.

Of course, there are places where it feels easier to eat on your own. A couple of years ago, I spent a week walking across Tokyo by myself. If you had to arrange the world's nations on a continuum of extroversion and introversion (a slightly questionable exercise, but bear with me) I'm pretty sure you'd find the Japanese alongside the Finns at the introverted end. For someone who's used to the rough and tumble of a busy European capital and the frequently brusque transactions that comprise city life, Tokyo seems almost eerily serene. I never heard raised voices or a car horn, or witnessed an incident of road rage. Considerate, unhelmeted cyclists shared the pavement happily with pedestrians.

I ate almost every meal alone, but I never felt self-conscious. It was easy to find places where the majority of customers were eating by themselves. The counter of a sushi bar, a noodle shop where you pay with tokens, a family-run restaurant serving bento boxes at lunchtime, are all places where you can get a decent meal in quiet, low-impact surroundings. There's just people having dinner. No one pinching your face and calling you bellissima. No one insisting you drink vodka or dance the lambada.

A culture of introverts inevitably respects the needs of a lone diner. And it's not a coincidence, I think, that many of the restaurants around the world that are most conducive to solitary eating are Japanese. Looking at Nighthawks again, I have second thoughts. That guy with his back to us is Googling "sushi restaurant".

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

    £25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Travel Consultant

    £20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in London, Manches...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager

    £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager required for ...

    Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator

    £25000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator A...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago