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".

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