When I first went to college, my biggest anxiety was probably dining alone. I had done enough of that in middle school, when the divisions between popular kids and losers started and I wanted nothing more than to wash my hands of the whole manipulative farce. Seriously, dealing with 11-year-old girls is like staring straight into the depths of hell. It was never the solitude that bothered me in those cafeteria days. It was the judgment.
Judgment from so-called former friends, offended that I no longer wanted to partake in their reindeer games. Judgment from well-meaning classmates who insisted I join them, but deep down just pitied me. Judgment from jocks who made no attempt at concealing their disdain for having to share a table with me because it was the last free spot in the room. Judgment from teachers and guidance counselors who assumed my distaste for grade school politics to be a cry for help.
I stand by my two-week stint as a solo brown bagger. If I had stuck with the same
Satanic cult preppy blonde clique I knew in elementary school, just for the sake of that comfort zone, I would have had a pretty miserable time in school. As is, after a couple weeks of really getting to know classmates, I found a group of friends that wound up sticking together all the way through high school. Many of us still stay in touch.
At the same time, I’d be lying if I said that little episode didn’t leave me with some pretty deep scars over dining alone.
But hey, this is a travel blog, right? Why am I unloading my middle school traumas here instead of on my therapist’s couch?
Because much like starting middle school or going to college, embarking upon solo travel is a big lifestyle change. In the U.S., going out by yourself to eat is very unusual and in some places, potentially even frowned upon. I, like many new travelers, struggled for a long time with dining alone.
My first night in Barcelona, I spent three hours walking up and down the same street by the Sagrada Familia. My perfectionism and my anxiety had formed a borderline-paralytic cocktail whose main effect was a complete inability to go into a restaurant and request a table for one. I kept convincing myself that this place was too busy, the next too quiet. The prices were too high, the reviews on TripAdvisor too low. There was always a reason it wasn’t right.
In retrospect, I see how ridiculous this is. Hell, in the moment, I could tell how ridiculous it was. But I still couldn’t make myself pull the trigger.
So, whether at home or abroad, should you find yourself in a similar solo diner quandry, here’s my advice:
Pick a place in advance
I hadn’t had this problem on the first week of my RTW trip in Reykjavik. So why was it a problem in Barcelona? The reason, I think, is two-fold. First, Reykjavik is a very small city. Barcelona is huge. Second, because of that difference in size, my research on Reykjavik was much more thorough than my research on Barcelona. There is a limited number of budget dining options in Reykjavik and while I didn’t try them all, I certainly knew about most of them by the time the plane landed. The sheer size of Barcelona means at every corner, you can be overwhelmed with choices. And overwhelmed I certainly was.
So my next night in Barcelona, I picked a place in advance. I went with a restaurant within walking distance of my hostel, on the very same street I had found so intimidating the night before. I practically already knew the street like the back of my hand, so I figured on second impression it would be more comfortable. The food was fairly mediocre, the service was abysmally slow, but I did it.
On future occasions, such as in Florence, I made a less arbitrary selection by searching the blogosphere for recommendations. If I can find a blogger’s recommendation for a solo diner-friendly restaurant, I’m in.
There’s a huge difference between a casual beachfront cafe and a restaurant where the only thing more heavily starched than the tablecloth is the waiter’s shirt. On another night out in Barcelona, I opted for the former. Being able to simply swing in and take a seat in a place where servers are friendly and easygoing goes a long way to easing a solo diner’s anxieties. Having an ocean view at dinner and plenty of people watching helped take my mind off that sense of being a solo sore thumb. This night was easily one of the highlights of my entire two weeks in Spain.
My real solo dining breakthrough, however, came a month into my RTW trip in Paris. Returning to the site of my first overseas trip after 10 years was like reconnecting with a childhood sweetheart. I’m more convinced than ever that the streets of Paris will always seem to whisper “You belong here” as I walk by. Case in point: it has a phenomenal solo diner culture.
The French are no strangers to the concept of enjoying food and wine for the simple sake of individual pleasure. Going out by yourself isn’t a necessary evil as it is in the States. It’s an enjoyable way to treat yourself. As I settled into a dim-lit, crowded bistro in Saint Germain des Pres, I had a minor epiphany.
Dining alone is like dating yourself. You have so much more time alone with your thoughts. Before taking this trip, I had never put together that my difficulty eating alone in college and even now was connected to my experiences in middle school. When you travel alone and eat alone, you’re getting to know yourself better. You’re treating yourself to a nice meal and a glass of wine. You’re admitting that you actually like the person you are.
I’ve gone on to have many fun solo dates from duck confit in Paris to a trendy new watering hole in Florence where you write your order on a chalkboard. From downing a whole pizza in Naples to cozying up with a warm bowl of goulash on a rainy night in Ljubljana. Choosing roughly one night a week to go out and treat myself to a nice solo dinner out is a highlight of arriving in a new place.
So go forth and eat by yourself. You’re not alone.