One of the most frequent concerns I hear about solo travel is from people who are not comfortable eating alone. They worry others will consider them to be a friendless, unhappy loner or worry that staff and other diners will pity them for being stood up or abandoned.
Whether we like it or not, many people, especially women, feel a social stigma when eating alone, and it makes us uncomfortable. Even some diehard solo travellers, including me, sometimes find dining alone difficult.
I want to experience local food and avoid familiar chains. I need to prevent starvation, enjoy my meal, and enjoy the experience. If you love solo travel and good food but dislike solo dining, there are three options: avoid dinner in sit-down restaurants, plan casual dining only, or develop strategies to become comfortable in fine dining experiences.
It is my goal to enjoy the local food by enjoying healthy specialties and without being limited by social anxieties. It took practice (and a couple of stern self-talks) to build confidence and to get over my silly concerns about what strangers might think of me. I was surprised to discover that most of my concerns were nonsense, existing entirely within my own mind. I have not noticed any judgement from the dining staff or patrons. If they were talking about me, I have never been aware of it. Any curiosity from fellow diners was polite and fleeting. In reality, I have had some absolutely memorable solo dining experiences. I discovered that staff are often more attentive, and engaging. I have enjoyed people-watching, reading my book, or editing photos. In more casual situations, it's not unusual to chat with fellow diners. Here are some of the strategies that have been working for me. I'd love to hear any strategies others have found helpful.
Option One for the Solo Traveller: Avoid sit-down restaurant meals
Street food/food trucks/markets. The North American food truck and street food scenes are no longer the cheapest, fastest food possible but they are casual! In other countries, farmer's markets and other street food options are often great for the solo budget traveller. The food is usually exceptional and the cost is reasonable. You'll often find seating nearby for communal eating.
Coffee and Sandwich shops. In a coffee shop, it's common to be alone or to be using your devices. The food options are sometimes limited but can be very tasty. I try to avoid familiar chain shops and look for local small businesses.
Breakfast at accommodations: Try to book a place that includes breakfast. Eat heartily. Very few places would object if you grab a muffin to go, but don't be tempted to make your lunch.
Take a cooking class or food tour where everyone shares a meal at the end. Cooking classes are a wonderful opportunity to learn about a culture through its food, develop new skills, meet people who share your passion for food, and share a meal with new friends at the end. Check out Air BnB Experiences or Viator (Tripadvisor) to see what's available at your destination.
Join a foodie meetup. If you want to have a meal at a restaurant with locals go to Meetup.com or Airbnb Experiences and look for a food and wine group. There are often many food and wine meetup groups in a city. Check out the local grocery stores. Many grocery stores offer pre-made meals. At the very least, you can pick up bread, cheese, fruit, and snacks for the day. Consider creating a tasty picnic. This is also an excellent way to stretch your travel budget.
Take out from a restaurant. Many restaurants offer take-out service. Ask a local which restaurant they use for authentic deals and treats.
Option Two: Casual Dining for the Solo Traveller
If you are looking to have a sit-down meal at a reasonable price, there are usually lots of options, covering everything from chains to mom-and-pop operations. Casual places are more frequented by people on their own, and there really is no social stigma attached but bring along your phone, your journal, or a book to occupy yourself, or to use as a prop while you people-watch. My travel experience usually includes eating healthy, fresh local food but sometimes stopping in a chain restaurant ensures a clean bathroom and a strong WIFI signal.
Choose a cafe or patio. When you have the world to look at and people to watch, you won't feel nearly so obvious for eating alone. Enjoy the food and the city buzz, but understand that staff may be reluctant to seat a solo traveller at prime tables at peak times in the very busy tourist areas. Often walking a street or two away from the main plaza will find you a better meal and more engaging and welcoming staff.
Visit a pub. Pubs are always casual and it is very common to have solo guests. Food offerings tend to be hearty, simple, and generous. Irish pubs the world over are always welcoming to the solo traveller looking for a meal.
Option Three: Fine Dining For Solo Food and Wine Lovers
Solo travellers don't always want casual or street food. Many of us enjoy a fine dining experience that just can't be had at home. Perhaps there is a specific restaurant, gastropub, or foodie experience that we want and we can't, or don't want to, find a group to join. These are exactly the types of dining experiences that cause the most anxiety for the solo traveller. I have never had a negative fine dining experience as a solo traveller. I ask for quiet seating and have always been served very attentively. I have been greeted with respect and have had splendid experiences. More often than not, I have been offered a complimentary dessert or special after-meal drink. My tips for fine dining are:
Focus on your food. Visiting a truly fine establishment on your own allows you to focus on your food. The staff expect their clients to savour every mouthful. Take your time with the menu. Discuss your options with your server. Ask the sommelier to recommend wine pairings. Experience your dinner to its fullest. Take a peek around, no one is looking at you. They are immersed in their own experience.
Choose a restaurant and eat at the bar. Even in a fine dining establishment, the bar is a more casual place to eat than at a linen-covered table. I often meet people at the bar and have interesting conversations. Another fun option is to look for a "Chef's Table" experience which often includes solo diners.
Choose the lunch hour. A fine restaurant has the same executive chef for the more casual, less expensive noon hour as it has in the evenings. It's likely a more relaxing time for dining alone. Be aware that many fine restaurants close for several hours in the afternoon, so plan your time accordingly.
Dining alone isn't an insurmountable problem. With a few strategies, most solo travellers can learn to be comfortable in most settings. I've had to accept that I'm not so fascinating that the rest of the world spends more than a fleeting thought about my solo dining status. The stigma surrounding solo dining is stronger in my mind than in the minds of the people around me.
How do you feel about eating in a restaurant alone? What are your strategies to avoid feeling uncomfortable? Do you have some suggestions that make solo dining easier for travellers? Share your tips in the comments. :)
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