Don’t pity me for eating alone, just give me a better table

Clever restaurants have cottoned on to the idea that not every diner is part of a dinner a deux

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Is there anything more blissful than having lunch on one’s own? You can choose what you want to eat (in my case, an entire avocado pear). You can select the music. You can read the paper. You can text. You can eat in bed, al fresco, feet up on the table, on the sofa in front of the TV, with fingers, commando style, whatever.

Since you are guest, waiter, chef and washer-up rolled into one, you have no one to impress or care, and it is joyous.

Presumably the news from market research company Kantar Worldpanel that more and more of us are eating alone these days ought to be greeted with dismay; for after all, is not sociable eating one of the hallmarks of a civilised society? Well, sometimes. But there is something so deliciously egocentric about the solo meal which I am afraid diminishes the anxieties about social fragmentation, alienation and all the other tosh which hand-wringing market researchers hope we will be channelling, having digested the news that 44 per cent of all meals are now taken alone.

Let me clarify; not every solo meal eaten in the country (and thus in the survey) is eaten by someone who lives alone and is desperate for human company. Not every solo meal is a cry for help. Just as often, a solo meal can represent 40 minutes of interesting time with a sandwich and an iMac. Or a sandwich and your thoughts. I had dinner on my own at the Willerby Manor Hotel in Hull last Saturday night. It was brilliant. I had exactly what I wanted to eat (steak and chips, Diet Coke) and I managed to get through an entire feature in the The New Yorker on Italian politics while doing so. Uninterrupted.

I sat right in the middle of the room, too, because if you are choosing to eat alone you should do so with pride. I have can speak with some authority on this, since I have what one might call “form” in the eating alone arena, having once written a newspaper feature on it. For an entire week, I took supper on my own at a range of diners across London. The resultant piece was given the toe-curling headline “Sad Loser at a Table for One” and was graced by a picture of yours truly chowing down solo on a burger at Planet Hollywood. Looking pretty content about it, too.

Planet Hollywood is a great place to eat alone, because when you are there, nobody really cares about your status. You are given a nice big table, and the waitresses make a fuss of you. Whereas at the Ritz, one of my other venues, things were very different. I was given a table so far out of the main thoroughfare, I was very nearly perched on the fire escape. The waiters couldn’t be rid of me fast enough.

Of course, some clever restaurants and cafés have cottoned onto the idea that not every person arriving for some nosh is taking part in a business breakfast, or dinner a deux, and have civilised the notion of eating alone. Le Pain Quotidien has giant tables in every single one of its branches, so if you choose, you can easily strike up conversation with someone else over a brioche. Surely the boom in WiFi-equipped restaurants also signifies that we like to do other things while we eat. It’s not the end of the world.

The survey suggested that food waste is an alarming side effect of eating alone, since most readymade meals are made for two. I’m not sure about the validity of this. If your life is family life, you tend to hoover up all sorts lovely leftovers (or at least, I do) when eating solo, rather than preparing a bespoke meal, even if it is readymade. Also because you aren’t eating to please anyone, there is no forced downing of things you don’t really want. I find I eat much less when I am on my own.

Not only do you not have to worry about your manners when you are eating alone, you don’t have to worry about moderating anyone else’s behaviour, either. Mealtimes with my four delightful children are sometimes a fraught occasion. For some reason when they turn up at the dinner table, a strange spell is cast turning them into fussy, rude and demanding human beings who spill everything, which is deeply tiresome.

Give me meals on my own. Not every day. Not at every meal. But the personal pleasure to be found via the solo plate should not to be underestimated.