Updated on December 19th, 2022
Eating alone in a restaurant can be a daunting prospect when you first contemplate travelling solo. After 30 years and many meals enjoyed with just my own company here is my ultimate guide to dining out alone.”
Anywhere they serve food 😉
Picture the scene…
It was the last night of an amazing trip to Iceland. I had attended a life-enhancing yoga retreat, battling my post-pandemic fears in the process. I had ridden legendary horses, walked on a glacier, snorkelled between tectonic plates, seen the Northern Lights and basically been left in awe and wonder every step of the way.
So, for my final night in Reykjavik, I decided to treat myself to a slap-up meal in a posh restaurant. My plan was to relax, take my time, enjoy some amazing food and reflect on the fantastic trip I’d had.
As I’d been on a tour of the Golden Circle that day, I arrived at around 6pm and it was busy. When the front-of-house guy heard I was on my own, he gave an (almost imperceptible) roll of his eyes before walking me through the restaurant to the corner, next to the kitchen. He sat me down while making a big performance of clearing away the other place setting on my table for two.
I ordered a drink, planning on a beer, followed by a glass or two of wine with dinner. When the waiter returned to take my food requests, he asked if I wanted any side orders with my main meal. I had asked for a steak but also love lots of vegetables.
He informed me that the portions of vegetables were small with the main dishes. “Like a garnish” he said. So, I opted for an extra portion of asparagus for good measure.”
As I excitedly waited for my meal, the action around the kitchen was busy. I watched the staff dashing in and out (this was not a table that most people would probably savour). I observed the parties of friends and the two women next to me having a good catch-up and gossip.
When their food arrived, it came with a flourish. Each dish was given a full description of what was on the plate and how it had lovingly been prepared. It all sounded delicious. My anticipation grew.
However, when mine arrived, it did so without any performance. It was practically dumped on the table in front of me, without explanation. And the plate of food was huge…no lack of vegetables at all! As was my extra order of asparagus. I had a lot of food to get through but my enthusiasm for the experience had waned.
I felt deflated, unwelcome and uncomfortable. It was as if my self-celebratory meal wasn’t as special as everyone else’s. They had conned me into increasing my order. Each interaction dampened my spirits further. I just wanted to eat and get out as quickly as possible.
It was not the final night I had hoped for or envisioned. I ate, stuck to the one drink and sloped off back to my hotel room as soon as I could.”
It’s all about the business
Don’t get me wrong. I get it. Restaurants make more money from more people. The staff get higher tips when increased cash is spent. One person dining alone takes up a table that could seat at least two. It’s not hard to understand from a business perspective why solo diners aren’t the most popular in restaurants.
But what about the human factor?
What about the huge emotional effort it sometimes needs to take the plunge to eat alone?
How about if it’s something you fear and have finally plucked up the courage to go to a restaurant solo?
The effort it took to build myself up and take on the challenge. The countless tears I sniffed back with varying measures of success. The times I have practically run out of venues with them streaming down my face.”
But, for the most part, I’ve moved on from that. I’ve developed a whole host of strategies to make me feel empowered and enjoy the solo dining experience. It’s just that sometimes I forget a few and occasionally have that ‘Iceland experience’.
Here I share these lessons in my ultimate guide to eating alone in a restaurant.
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1. Take a food tour
Before I go on and share all my essential tips for eating alone in a restaurant, one thing I love to do is take a culinary tour.
If food is your thing, but eating alone doesn’t appeal to you, then it could be the perfect solution. Get Your Guide and Viator have plenty of options to allow you to get a full gastronomic experience while learning more about the culture and meeting others at the same time. I was converted to these after going on a fantastic tour of Lisbon with my friends recently. Joining us was a solo female traveller who threw herself into our little bit of madness.
We all enjoyed each other’s company so much that the guide ended up extending the tour and took us to a local festival. We all carried on drinking together until the early hours.”
Then there was Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam (Saigon). Here, I took a food tour on the back of a scooter for an even more authentic experience. The guides were fantastic. I felt totally safe despite the chaos that is HCMC at night and got to enjoy 9 different courses of food from various regions of Vietnam.
And if food really is your thing, then why not take a cookery lesson? I recently did this in Hoi An, with a tour of the market, a very bizarre half hour on basket boats and an opportunity to cook some of my favourite dishes too. It was loads of fun and an education.
Throughout this guide, I have included food tours around the world that you can take. But now on to the rest of my tips for eating alone in a restaurant.
Dining in a busy restaurant alone can be daunting. So, be kind to yourself and build up to it. Why not practice at home before you start to travel? Begin with a coffee and then progress to lunch or breakfast. This will help to increase your comfort factor at just sitting at a table alone when others will be in couples or groups. And the pressure will feel less during the daytime.
3. Dress the part
One thing that always helps increase your confidence is what you wear. If you feel good, you will look more comfortable, and it could impact how you view the whole experience. Think about the clothes you’re wearing, what you have on your feet, and make-up or no make-up? Think about the place you are going and how others may be dressed, the more you can blend in, the less you will feel you stand out.
4. “Is it JUST you?”
Trust me, I’ve been greeted by this numerous times when arriving to eat alone in a restaurant. If you’re not expecting it, it can be like taking a dagger to the heart. So, expect it, and prepare your answer. I like “Absolutely!” or “Yes, just me!” with firm eye contact and a big smile. If you don’t get received with this question or something similar, be pleasantly surprised. Own it and do it with confidence.
5. Judgement of others
We’ve all been through it. That feeling that everyone is watching you. What is going on in their heads?
“She must be really sad to be on her own”
“I wonder if she’s been stood up?”
“Is she on the hunt for a man?”
“Should I talk to her?”
I think all of these things many times as I enter or take a seat alone in a restaurant. But as we all know, what goes on in our own heads is usually completely different to reality. What are they really thinking? Imagine if it was…
“Wow, she’s brave!”
“I’m not sure if I could do that”
“Good on her!”.
As I said before, own it. The fact that you are there in the first place shows your strength. You are amazing. Feel it and be proud.”
In addition, don’t forget that people generally are focussed on themselves. When they are out to eat, if they are not preoccupied with their companions, they may feel jealous of you! We are all a little self-absorbed nowadays so what you think is someone staring at you with all those questions going through their head, is probably them just glancing around the room, barely noticing you and then going back to their own dining experience.
7. Walk like you own the place
This is one of my top pieces of advice generally when solo travelling the world. Confidence is so much about how you hold yourself. Stand tall. Look the staff in the eye when you say you want a table for one. Stick your shoulders back and stride confidently. Trust me, it will give you strength and help dispel all the self-doubt you may feel.
One of my favourite sports is people-watching and I can partake in it for hours! Dining alone is the best opportunity to indulge yourself. However, it is also good to take some distractions with you. I will always have my phone to keep in touch with friends, edit and review my photos from the day or post on social media. But I also have a theory that being on electronics can make you look so busy that you miss the good things about the experience.
So, as well as your phone take a book, a guidebook or a journal. I find these make you more open to interact with those around you.”
Those of us who speak English are lucky as most people working within hospitality will usually have some grasp of the language. Make the most of this by interacting with the waiting staff. This is easier if you avoid the busiest times (more on that later).
For example, ask about the menu. Which is the most popular choice or the traditional dish? What would they recommend on the menu? Or in general at your destination, where should you not miss? Where are the best areas to discover? Places to hike? Beaches? Hidden gems? The staff are often local and will have a wealth of information to take advantage of. If you have a guidebook, it will also indicate to other visitors where you are from. Start a conversation. Where have they enjoyed? What would they recommend or discourage for your itinerary?
The more you look outwardly like you are confident and open, the more you will feel it. But also, the more likely you are to get a response or interaction from others (if that’s what you want, of course). Be open to talking to people and they will engage with you. And from that, you never know where you can make friends!
Where to go
If you are anxious about dining alone, which restaurant you choose is all important. If it’s a popular spot for couples, it can feel more awkward. Likewise with families. In a big local hangout, the food is probably excellent, but they may not speak English as well. If it’s famous for its party atmosphere, you may feel lonelier. Importantly, if it’s a long way from where you’re staying, consider how you will get there and back. This brings me to…
Generally, if I don’t research and plan where to eat, I end up making the wrong decision. If you like the look of a place during the day, go and ask for a table that evening. If it looks good in the evening, book for the next day. Remember, if it’s popular, it is popular for a reason, so book in advance to avoid disappointment. This also allows you to navigate how to get there and back home again.
13. Check directions
Have a look at where the restaurant is before you leave your accommodation. Ideally, if it’s the evening I like to stick to places which are just a short walk. Earlier in the day, I am happy to be further from home.
Is it walkable? Do you need a taxi? Ask your host or reception for their advice. Again, for safety, I often feel more comfortable using public transport during the day and taxis at night. Check Google Maps or Maps.me for the details and directions, both there and back. Ask the restaurant to order you a taxi and wait there until it arrives.
The last thing you need when you’ve made all the effort to find a restaurant, dress for confidence and sat down ready to enjoy your meal is to find a menu that is not to your taste.
Or within your budget.
Walking out again will destroy everything you’ve done ahead of time. Nowadays, if you’re not close enough to look, you can view menus online for most restaurants, or find them on Google Maps. And of course, while you’re at it, make sure the prices are within your budget.
It’s important that you enjoy the experience and not spend the whole meal feeling uncomfortable about how much the bill will be when it arrives!”
15. Where to sit
Although in my Iceland example, many people would have hated the seat I was given, I liked how busy it was. I would always rather be tucked into a corner where I can watch people coming and going than centrally seated. Being in the window is also a great spot if you’re an avid people watcher. One of the advantages of eating in a restaurant alone is that you can often bypass the queues for a table by sitting at the bar. Take advantage! Wherever you are seated though, if you’re not happy with it, ask to be moved. Do it with a smile. The most important thing is your comfort.
When to go
16. Go Early
Part of the challenge I had in Iceland was that I arrived at their busiest time. Even though I wasn’t there for long, they may have had numerous people wanting tables for two which had to be turned away as I was occupying one. My usual approach is to turn up early. I will often have my main meal of the day, during the afternoon. That way you can be a welcome customer when they are not busy. They have more time and are grateful rather than begrudging of your presence. In addition, you don’t have the challenge of travelling or walking in the dark.
I am also convinced that being there in the afternoon and making notes in my journal, I often get better service as the staff think I’m there to review the place.”
And that is only helped by taking photos of the food, a habit which is now obligatory everywhere! 😉
17. Be drink aware
Know your limits when it comes to alcohol and stick to them. Don’t drink too much so you cannot leave with as much confidence as you arrived. And never leave your drink unattended. Unscrupulous people may also eat in restaurants! If you need the bathroom, go before you order or after you have finished your drink.
18. Save your place
If you do need the bathroom while you’re there, make sure you have something to show that you will be coming back. Take your phone and bag with you but leave your book or notebook on the table, your jacket on the seat, anything to indicate that the table is occupied, and you will be returning.
19. Keep your bag safe
I have been the victim of thieves several times while I sat in a restaurant.
That trick of taking your bag, stealing and then returning it without you realising it had been touched? Had that!
Distracting you at the table while they swipe your wallet without you noticing?
As a result, I always have contact with my bag. If the back of the chair is enclosed, I will often put my bag at the back…think of it as lumber support!”
If it’s open or this just isn’t comfortable, I hook the handle over one of my knees. If they have hooks under the table, or at the bar, use them but always position yourself so it is in front of you. The more contact you have, the harder it is to steal anything.
20. Being invisible
Be warned, sometimes when you are eating at a restaurant alone, you can become invisible. You may arrive when it’s quiet but enjoy the atmosphere as it gets busy, and you no longer become a priority. It happens to us all. It can then become challenging to get some attention when you need to pay the bill. Don’t be afraid to take your receipt and walk confidently to the till. Take charge. Alternatively, take cash. Work out what your meal and drinks have cost and leave enough to cover everything.
This may all sound very complicated and a little unspontaneous but trust me, after a while it is just second nature. The most important thing is to enjoy the experience. Revel in your own company and the courage you have to make it happen.
Take distractions but don’t miss the time to “Just be”. Watch. Notice. Engage in what is going on around you. Think. Plan. Reflect. Take time for yourself.
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