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« Bagatelle | Main | Fact for the Day »

January 15, 2007

Dining Out Alone

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Do you like dining alone in a restaurant?

James Lileks touches on this in his 12 January Bleat. (When I wrote this, I couldn't directly link to it, so you might have to check his Archives to read the whole post -- which mostly deals with other subjects.)

He writes:

He [an older man] was replaced [at a Wendy's] by a younger version, a fellow in his 40s with the same glasses and the same shade of jeans and the same white shoes, except that this fellow had a New Republic magazine. I sympathized. O the meals I've eaten alone with magazines for company. Did I ever mind? Once, twice, perhaps a few times over the years, particularly in the great Lonely Times of the 20s, but in general, no: a fresh cup of coffee, a table to myself, a hamburger on the way, a fresh-struck smoke in the clean square ashtray, a stack of newspapers and magazines: the best of friends. I've never pitied anyone who eats alone in restaurants – only those who don't come prepared.

That's me, too.

Breakfast is my favorite dining-out meal. Before I got married I usually bought a Wall Street Journal and read the most interesting bits as I went through the wait-order-wait-arrival-eat-wait-billing-leave cycle. Total time: about 40-45 minutes.

Weekends I'd bring along a copy of Commentary or Automobile or Car & Driver to keep me company, the Saturday WSJ not being worth the buck-fifty they want for it.

Evening meals are another matter. Unless I have company I almost never eat out then. But if I do, I'll usually gravitate to the simplest, cheapest fast-food restaurant. And bring reading material.

I well remember one instance where I pretty much had to eat alone at a fancy restaurant. I was starting my consulting stint with General Motors and they put me up at the St. Regis Hotel, across the street from their then West Grand Boulevard headquarters. It was dark and the neighborhood struck me as iffy, so I passed on the McDonalds a few blocks away and ate at the hotel's restaurant. It was fancy and the process lasted more than an hour. The food was good, but I was alone and had no one to talk with to speed the time. And of course I didn't dare whip out reading material. Not fun. At all.

As I write this I can't shake the notion that I might have dealt with this topic before. Yet our fab search engine has turned up zilch. So feel free to toss your two cents in Comments even if you've commented on something like this before.



posted by Donald at January 15, 2007


It depends on the type of restaurant and the situation. Casual restaurant, non-rush-hour, lots of empty tables: I figure the waiter or waitress is glad to have any business, and isn't feeling resentful because one person's tip is going to be less than that of two or more. Of course I have every right, etc., etc. That doesn't change my emotional calculation as to whether I am worthy of his or her attention.

Semi-posh restuarant: okay in hotels or transient-related sites -- whether I actually am on a business trip or not, it's as if. I still try to time my repast so that I'm not taking up a table during a crowded era in the restaurant's daily round that could be seating a family of four with a high-chair drawn up to contain a nipper.

Posh or "serious" restaurant: I feel like I ought to fetch up at the back door asking for a handout. Can't imagine dining solo, even if it's in a hotel. Of course I have every right, etc., etc. But what do you do in those gaps between courses? How long can you admire the decor? Cast discreet glances at the the couples making sheep's eyes at each other or people dining en famille? Study the design and texture of the bread sticks? No thanks. Say, is there a Wendy's around here?

Posted by: Rick Darby on January 15, 2007 7:27 PM

I'm the same -- I love to sit over brunch with a Sunday newspaper at a bagel shop, but eating alone in a more upscale restaurant is no fun at all.

Posted by: JewishAtheist on January 15, 2007 9:07 PM

I like eating alone, but then again, I'm very much an introvert and a tad misanthropic. I nearly always carry a notebook (the old-fashioned, college-ruled, wire-bound kind) and some pens, so I often write while I eat. I've only had two problems with this: (1) sometimes people want to know what I'm writing and will interrupt me in the middle of my meal/writing session, and (2) it's hard to use chopsticks, or even a fork, with my left hand while writing with my right hand. And vice-versa.

Posted by: Nina on January 15, 2007 10:12 PM

I guess I don't get why "of course" you couldn't whip out reading material. The only thing that ever stops me from reading in a restaurant is companionship. Come to think of it, I generally won't sit down to eat in a restaurant until I've secured reading material, which is why the local place downstairs from Borders is one of my favorite places for lunch on Saturdays.

Posted by: Joshua Macy on January 15, 2007 10:24 PM

I expect Michael will run in with the cry "Slow food!" any minute now.

Why do you have to read while you eat? Enjoy your food instead. Eat slowly, think about every morsel you consume. [you understand, it's not me talking]

I don't know, Donald, how can you eat breakfast out. It's my favorite meal of the day, and I prefer cook it myself, at home, with last minute changes. I can eat at leisure, concentrate on the day ahead or listen to the news - and pour another cup of coffee if I had 5 more minutes.

Posted by: Tatyana on January 16, 2007 1:21 AM

I have an odd social anxiety about eating alone. I have no idea where it came from and I don't have similar anxieties about anything else involving solitude. I can go to a bar by myself, travel alone without a problem, and I don't have any problem meeting new people.

But eating, for whatever reason, is different. If I'm on a business trip alone, I'll order room service, eat chips from the mini-bar, order pizza or Chinese delivery, anything to avoid sitting in a restaurant alone.

Posted by: cs on January 16, 2007 6:11 AM

There is someting curious about this. When a couple is eating out, on a date, they are making what we would call a private act. And nevertheless, they are doing it in public. Going out as way to be together "alone".
Maybe there is one reason why we fel so awkward eating out alone "alone". We look and feel one alone too much.

Posted by: ortega on January 16, 2007 11:18 AM

I have no problem eating solo at a restaurant when I'm traveling, yet hate dining out by myself at home. Obviously this is because traveling gives me the excuse for being alone: "No. I'm not a friendless loser, actually, I'm just here on business and don't know anybody in the city" .... It's pathetic, really, isn't it?

Posted by: stephenesque on January 16, 2007 11:34 AM

As my wife has reminded me (many times!), this is a very different discussion for men versus women. Most women, in my experience, will go to great lengths to avoid eating alone in a restaurant, for a number of (mostly good) reasons.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on January 16, 2007 1:11 PM

I happily eat alone, and will bring something to read even if I'm with someone else. (You can never tell when that person might disappear to go to the salad bar or the rest room.) Fortunately, my wife does the same, and is (or seems to be) happy to read as well.

I don't always read my reading material, but it's always there. Even my 7 y.o. son understands the importance of an emergency book.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on January 16, 2007 7:46 PM

At restaurants/diners where the meal price may total $30 or below, I have no problem bringing a stack of newspapers or a book that easily lies open on the table to accompany the meal. I notice occassional envious glances from other diners, usually from guys, as I glance through the papers while they're stuck in the rigors of mealtime conversations with folks they seem not to be wanting to break bread with.
At restaurants/diners where the meal price may total above $30, I've tried the reading route and I've felt quite uncomfortable. Probably me not able to shut out the stares and tsk-tsk's. So, if I'm dining alone and the city/town I'm in doesn't have a truly spectacular over-$30 meal restaurant in town, I'll stay away form the high-priced entree eatery and stick with the comfort of meal-'n-read.

Best days for lunches during the week with paper? Has to be Science Tuesday and Escapes/Movie Reviews Friday, with the NYT. It's hard to have a live person across the table being as interesting as those two NYT days.

Posted by: DarkoV on January 17, 2007 8:28 AM

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