Sunday, 2 September 2012

Dining solo

In my experience of reading solo travel forums, and talking about solo travel with friends and on Twitter, one of the biggest worries about going away alone seems to be the prospect of eating out alone. This was something which I was a bit nervous about before my first solo holiday too. I think most of us associate eating in a restaurant with socialising, so it can feel strange sitting down and having a meal by yourself. I’ve done this quite a few times now, both abroad and in the UK, and have even come to enjoy it, so I thought I would share a few tips from my experiences. I hope you’ll come away from this post with the feeling that dining solo isn’t so bad after all, and that it shouldn’t stop you travelling by yourself!

Probably my main tip would be to act confident, even if you don’t feel it. If you walk in to a restaurant, café or bar like you have every right to be there alone (which you do), in my experience you’ll find that most waiting staff will not question it. Spend some time browsing the menus outside if you haven’t got a specific restaurant in mind, just as you would if you were out with friends or family. If there are waiting staff standing at the door, smile and say hello as you’re looking. When you’ve chosen your dining venue, take a deep breath and simply walk in and ask (in the language of the country you’re in if possible, for extra confidence) for a table for one (or stroll in and choose the table you fancy if it’s counter service). I have never had anyone react unusually to this – they have always shown me to a table and given me a menu, just as they would for a couple or group. That’s the first hurdle overcome!

It can be hard not to feel self-conscious when you don’t have a tablemate to talk to while eating out. The most commonly suggested tip I’ve seen for this issue is to take something to read (also suggested by the very knowledgeable Michelle on Twitter during a discussion about this last night), or to do some writing, and I would agree with this – this is a really good way of feeling less self-conscious. It can also help to deter unwanted attention as it suggests you are busy – I always take my ereader or a print book with me when eating or drinking solo, even if I’m not intending to read, for this very reason. In Spain I often read through my Spanish phrase book when waiting for food to arrive – lots of my (albeit basic) Spanish has been learnt in restaurants and beach bars!

Another idea which works for me is trying to get a table by the window, for the view (also suggested by Michelle), so I’ve got something to look at or can do some people-watching. I actually do this more than reading my book I think. In Spain there were lots of restaurants on the paseo (boardwalk), looking out at the beach and the sea, so this was easy – and pretty too. Outside tables are good for this as well.

One of the downsides of solo dining is that often restaurants will only prepare specialist dishes for a minimum of two people; I had to hunt for a restaurant in La Carihuela, Torremolinos who would make me this yummy seafood paella, but I found a couple in the end.

If you think you’re going to feel self-conscious when eating out, then you probably don’t want to be in an empty restaurant – so it’s a good idea to find out what kind of times people eat their meals in the area you’re going to. In La Carihuela, for example, the restaurants would be empty before about 1.30pm for lunch and about 8pm for dinner. On my first day there I quickly realised I would rather adjust my mealtimes than be the only one there! A way round this could be to eat in a café or bar instead, where custom is less centred around meals.

Try eating out in different types of venues, to see which works best for you. Some people prefer eating in bars, where it’s less formal and you often pay at the counter rather than being waited on. Personally I am happy eating in bars, cafes and restaurants, depending on where I am. I sometimes feel happier in a restaurant because I feel that it’s less likely I’ll have to deal with unwanted attention, as people are sitting at tables rather than walking around the place, and the waiters are there to keep an eye on things. However please don’t let me put you off going to bars by yourself – in the UK I’ve had a drink and sometimes some food in loads of pubs by myself, and in Spain I had a drink in one of the beach bars most nights, without getting any hassle or unpleasant questioning (one night a British family did ask I was OK by myself – I said yes and we ended up chatting, but they would have left me alone if I’d not wanted to chat). In Spain I made sure I knew the Spanish for “I’m busy” and “leave me alone please”, just in case I needed them (I didn’t). Don’t feel that you have to put up with harassment just because you’re on your own!

I recently went out for dinner by myself at my local café-bar, and got talking to the bartender, who said she also liked dining solo. She pointed out that often restaurants will suspect that a solo diner is a mystery shopper, and gave me some tips for posing as one; ask for a receipt and always ask to see the dessert menu! I’ve not tried the asking for a receipt bit yet, but when I went out for dinner last weekend I decided to tap away busily while catching up with Twitter on my smartphone before and after my food, in the hope that it might look like I was a mystery diner or food critic taking notes – also giving me something to do to avoid that self-consciousness!

I’ve always had positive experiences eating out alone, but I know that this is not always the case; recently a friend experienced a nasty attitude from a restaurant when booking a table for one. They obviously decided to take their custom elsewhere, and you should do the same if this happens to you. You’re a paying customer who has every right to be there, and it’s their loss if they decide a solo diner is someone to be mocked or turned down. Don’t be afraid to turn around and walk back out of the door, and find somewhere else. 

Finally – try to enjoy it! I absolutely love food and for me dining out is a treat, whether alone or with friends or family. I choose whatever I fancy, I have a glass of wine, and I enjoy my meal. I also love that I can have a dessert and/or a starter without worrying about the people I’m with thinking I’m greedy!

I hope this post might have helped a little bit, if you’re thinking about travelling solo but worried about the dining part. Is there anything else that worries you about eating out that I haven’t covered? Or do you have any tips on dining solo? – I’d love to hear them.

Happy dining!

Cafe semi-largo and a piece of tarta malaguena in Cafe Central, Malaga, Spain


  1. That's all good advice. When I wenet to library conferences, I often extended my trips by a day or two, in order to see more of the countries. However, this meant going from a conference where you'd inevitably meet people and eat with them, to dining alone.

    Hong Kong was the worst. I remember going into a nice restaurant and asking for a table for one, only to realise that every other large table was full of families enjoying their meal. I felt very solo.

    The next night, I went to another restaurant, and at this one they put all the solo or double people at the same large round table. A good idea!

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting! I've read about restaurants where they do that but never experienced it myself; I've always thought it must be a bit awkward, like you're being forced to chat with people - how did you find it?

  3. I'm another solo traveller and have only just discovered your blog. Mostly I find restaurants, bars and cafés abroad much better than ones at home, though my experience, as a woman in her 50s, are probably different from yours. In Britain I've encountered occasional sneering attitudes and, frequently, the incredulous question "just for one?" in a tone of voice that makes it clear how unwelcome I am (especially in bars and cafés). In France, by contrast, I've always had good treatment - and I've seen conversations as an excellent opportunity to improve my French. What I find a real nuisance in England is the sense that, while it's OK for men to go to pubs on their own in the evening, it's thought quite odd for women. As a long-term connoisseur of real ale who likes to write in pubs I find this really irritating and restrictive. (I think it's got worse in Britain in the past ten years - mind you, when I was a student women like me were busily campaigning against pubs which banned women from sitting at the bar, from drinking pints or from entering particular bar areas. It's not that long since single women could be thrown out of pubs just for being on their own.)

  4. Really interesting post, and very timely. I'm about to try going away for a couple of days on my own (in the UK) and am plucking up the courage to eat alone in the evening - lunchtimes I don't find a problem. But going into a pub for a drink on my own might take a bit more courage, especially in this country. I guess it depends on the pub, but maybe I'll save that one for another time. Thanks for sharing your tips.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! It really does get easier after the first couple of times, I found - be brave, you will be fine! :-)
      I should have said when I mentioned pubs that in the UK I usually only go to places I know, and usually a cafe-bar type place rather than a traditional pub. They're more expensive, but I think it's worth it to feel comfortable.
      I hope you have a lovely break!

    2. I've just blogged about my first solo dining experience and just wanted to say thanks for your inspirational blog post that gave me the courage to go for it!

  5. Hi Kathz, thanks for reading and commenting! Sorry to hear you get that kind of treatment in the UK - I am still relatively new to eating and travelling solo so maybe I have been very lucky so far.
    I agree with you on the pub thing - I thought about expanding on that in my post but decided to save it for its own post - I should have said above that if I go to a pub or bar alone I choose it carefully, generally sticking to cafe-bar type places and places that I know well from visiting with others, because I do worry about feeling awkward or getting hassled. I agree, it is frustrating. I hope perhaps that will change in the future - but I guess it will take lots of us deciding to just go out and have a drink despite the awkwardness to change anything, and I'm not sure how we make that happen!
    Can I also thank you for your past seems bizarre now that we could be thrown out for being women alone!