Long Reads

“Why eating out alone is one of the greatest joys of my life”

New research shows 80% of 25-34 year olds are happy to eat out by themselves - and with good reason, says Stylist’s digital commissioning editor Sarah Biddlecombe

It’s 7.42pm on a Wednesday evening and I’m sat in a window seat at one of my favourite restaurants. People are rushing past in the cold outside, their faces illuminated by the streetlights, their hands stuffed in gloves to ward off the cold. But inside, it’s deliciously warm and buzzing with conversation, and I have both a beer and a pad Thai in front of me.

Best of all, though, is the fact that I’m sitting here alone.

I know that might sound strange, as though I’ve been stood up and am trying to put a brave face on the situation. But I mean it: eating out on my own is one of my all-time favourite activities.

People often react with surprise when I tell them how much I love solo dining, but I’m certainly not the only millennial who enjoys dinner for one. According to new research found 80% of 25-34 year olds are happy to eat out by themselves, while nearly a quarter (22%) of this age group have enjoyed a solo dinner in the past week. 

Most millennials are happy to eat out by themselves

Most of those surveyed said they ate alone because they valued having time to themselves, while other reasons included being able to choose the restaurant and not feel obligated to share their food.

The study also found Bristol to be the most popular UK city for eating alone, followed closely by Birmingham and London - so if you’re a solo diner in these areas, you’re in good company. 

Dining alone used to be heavily stigmatised, as if you were weird for enjoying your own company and a good meal – or simply couldn’t rustle up a friend to sit at the table beside you. As the late French sociologist Jean Baudrillard famously said: “Sadder than the beggar is the man who eats alone in public”.

I’ve definitely faced obstacles over my years of solo dining. Waiters have made me repeat my assertion that, yes, I am on my own. I’ve had maître d’s try to hide me at smaller tables in the corner, facing a wall or, even worse, the bathroom. I’ve been on the receiving end of pitying glances from other diners, horrified whispers, and even a bit of pointing.

This behaviour is annoying, not to mention off-putting, but thankfully it’s the exception to the rule. Most of the time, I feel welcome in the restaurants I visit alone, and people tend to leave me to it. This could be because solo dining is now more accepted in society, to the point where it’s even becoming a trend. 

Bristol is the most popular city in the UK for solo dining, followed closely by Birmingham and London

As the survey proves, millennials in the UK are steadily embracing the art of dining alone, but elsewhere around the globe, it’s already become even more of a standard practice. The trend seems to be led by South Korea, where solo diners are so common they even have a nickname: hon-bap people, which literally translates as alone-meal people. Across the pond in the US, a Forbes report found almost half (46%) of all adult meals are eaten alone.

Obviously, nothing is really a trend until it reaches the ‘gram, and there is no shortage of love for dining alone on Instagram. There are currently more than 12,000 posts tagged with #SoloDining and almost 11,000 with #SoloDinner. These are my people; they share carefully filtered photos of steaming bowls of ramen sat next to books with thoroughly cracked spines, or close-up images of scrambled eggs on toast with a stack of newspapers and magazines in the background.

“Nothing quite like taking yourself out to a fancy dinner,” reads the caption on one.

“Eating alone used to frighten me… but it allows me to enjoy local food, write in my journal, people watch and savour my own company,” reads another.

Solo diners are so common in South Korea they even have a nickname: hon-bap people

Of course, while there are numerous benefits to dining alone, it can be daunting at first. Walking into a restaurant or bar on your own can feel intimidating, and I’ve had moments of self-consciousness while sitting by myself at a table clearly meant for two.

But eating alone is not an exercise in isolation; rather, it should be viewed as a chance to press pause on our hectic lifestyles. Go into the situation armed with a book or a magazine, and actually give yourself the time to sit and read them. There’s no one else at the table to distract you, and if you want to linger over your starter because you’re engrossed in a profile of Brendan Dassey, then who’s to say you shouldn’t? 

Now, scheduling an evening to myself, in which I do nothing more taxing than eating good food and drinking good wine, gives me a chance to decompress. I love my friends but I’m an introvert at heart, and sometimes I need space, even from those I’m closest to.

I look forward to these dates with myself as much as I do dates with other people. It’s truly the most indulgent form of ‘me time’ that I can think of.

How to eat out by yourself

Fancy giving solo dining a go? Here are five of my best tips…

Choose the right restaurant: If you’re nervous about eating alone, opt for somewhere with a communal feel, such as a restaurant or café that serves diners on benches rather than individual tables. You will feel less conspicuous than if you sat at a table on your own. You could also try somewhere with a quick turnaround, such as a tapas or pizza restaurant, so you’re in and out within the hour.

Be fussy about where you sit: Always get a seat near a window if you can – people watching is all part of the fun. 

Bring a prop: If you feel self-conscious about sitting alone, bring a prop to keep you distracted – a book or magazine that you’ve been meaning to read for ages, or a film downloaded on your phone or tablet.

Treat it as a treat: This sounds obvious, but pick a restaurant that you actually want to eat at, and order food that you actually want to eat. Remember, this is your treat to yourself, not a punishment.

Don’t worry: Finally, try not to worry about what other people think. In all likelihood, they won’t even have noticed that you’re dining alone – after all, how often do you go into a restaurant and immediately single out all the people who are sat by themselves? Exactly.

Images: Unsplash

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