If you know me in person, you know that my only hanging-out activity is eating with friends. I like it to a sin. Now, recently, First We Feast published a list of “great places to dine alone in NYC“. I find the connotation somewhat unfair against introverts, myself included. Why do we treat “dining alone” as separate from “dining”? EVERY place is a great (or mediocre) place to dine alone. What makes a place great (or mediocre) are the food and the service, NOT the number of bodies you sit with.
In college, I noticed that all of my roommates shared a common habit: they ABSOLUTELY had to call someone to go eat with them at the cafeteria, if they couldn’t find someone, they curled up in the room with mac ‘n cheese or some takeout. Recently, a friend of mine felt stressed out, I told her to treat herself to a nice dinner, but she said that wouldn’t work because eating out alone would make her look pathetic. It’s not just her either. You rarely see a table of one at nice restaurants. Somehow, eating out alone is considered sad, awkward, something to “get used to”, especially for the ladies. It shouldn’t be. The company at a meal can boost the experience, but it is NOT a necessary condition to eat out. The party-of-one experience is not to be approached with the mindset of “how to do it right”. You don’t think of how to correctly eat s’mores or drink hot chocolate on a rainy day, right? Party-of-one is one of the most relaxing and carefree activities, right up there with hot chocolate and pajamas on rainy days. Here’s why:
1. No need to think of things to say. Dinner conversation can make or break a dining experience. With no dining companion, you don’t have to worry about the awkward small talk, the touchy subjects, how not to bore your company to death (or pretend that you’re not being bored), and the green onion on your teeth.
2. Perfect time to read. Or pretend to read and eavesdrop instead. Or observe people, including the kitchen staff.
3. Eat all you can. I’ve long passed the point where I eat only a small amount to appear like a delicate little lady (not sure if I ever did that at all, although my mom used to remind me not to eat like a piglet every time I went out), but really, we’re all conscious of how much we eat, depending on who we eat with. Eating alone gives you the full freedom to indulge, and that means I can order 5 different dishes for myself (and take home most of them, if I like them). Eating at a restaurant should be a self-indulgent event, where you can eat delicious food without preparing and cleaning, so why not enjoy it to its fullest?
4. Enjoy the meal at your own pace. It’s awkward to let my food sit around to cool down a little when my friend already works their plate. It’s awkward when I finish before they do and stare at them eating. It’s also awkward when they finish before I do and stare at me eating.
5. Eat anything you want to. Dining with company means that, to some degree, you have to be considerate of your company’s food preference, or sacrifice your own preference. If I tell people I don’t want a certain type of cuisine for dinner, but they like that cuisine, I feel bad. If I don’t tell them and we go somewhere that serves that type of cuisine, I’m stranded. I’m also the sort that likes to share food at the table, so no matter how much I want the stuffed squid, I won’t order it in the presence of my vegan friend. I can order anything when I eat alone.
6. Eat when you want to. Just wake up, get out of work, don’t feel like cooking, or have screwed up your cooking experiment completely? Going to restaurants on a whim, whether for lunch at 3 pm or dinner at 10 pm, is an unparallel liberation.
7. No messy scheduling to arrange a dinner with friends. The more people you plan to share a dinner with, the harder it is to find a time that works for everyone. And that’s not counting the food preferences (see #5).
8. Quick to get seated. There will always be room for a party of one.
I’m not bashing dining with company. Sharing food with people you like is undoubtedly enjoyable, but for a culture that preaches independence as much as the American culture, it’s baffling that dining alone is such a taboo. There’s only one reason that makes enough sense to me: I once read that servers don’t like parties of one because fewer people means less tip, a very American issue but still understandable, so I was a bit taken aback. Now, every time I eat out alone, I make sure to order at least 3 courses and tip well. Then I crawl home like a python after swallowing an elephant, a happy python. 😉