Table for one: why eating alone is one of life’s great joys

From people watching to reading, there are plenty of good reasons to fly solo when going out for dinner

Eating out is such a pleasure – the food, the wine, the luxury of having it all brought to you by someone else – that it’s a shame to spoil the experience by sharing it with other people.

OK, I’m not the curmudgeon that might make me sound: I do like visiting restaurants with friends. But dining out alone has its own very special attractions. For a start you can concentrate on the food. There’s nothing worse than having to invent and deliver an opinion on school league tables or Sanchez’s move to Manchester Utd, plus listen to everyone else’s opinions on same, when all you really want to do is tuck into your lasagne, relishing each mouthful along the way. The extreme version of this problem is the ‘working lunch’. All you can concentrate on is your desperate attempt to say the right thing in order to get the gig/avoid losing the gig/create the right impression generally. The chicken teriyaki that had your mouth watering as soon as you saw it on the menu? You’ve got zero attention left for that.

A second great thing about eating out alone is the chance to combine food with one of life’s other true pleasures: reading. You have to plan this carefully: Indian or Chinese restaurants are best – you need food you can eat with just one hand, leaving the other free to hold your reading material. For the same reason magazines are better than books, unless it’s a particularly slim paperback.

But perhaps the biggest attraction of a table for one is the opportunity it gives for people-watching. Restaurants and the different reasons for visiting them – first date, business meeting, night out with friends – produce human behaviour of astonishing richness and variety. Will the nervous 20-something persuade the girl he’s with to go back to his place after the coffee? Will the man pitching his business idea get any joy out of his possible investor? Will the married couple think of anything to say to each other before their main courses arrive? One of the most entertaining curries of my life was spent watching the resigned despair of two people stuck with a work colleague. He looked like a fat Donald Sutherland, and let them get about seven words in each. Among his many pronouncements was one about the way the same product can differ from country to country: ‘Carte d’Or in France is beautiful. Carte d’Or over here is shit.’

This ‘human zoo’ element of eating out alone is one of the reasons I’d hate to be famous: everyone would be watching you, so you wouldn’t be able to watch them. The snooker player Steve Davis says this was one of the strangest consequences of becoming well-known: he got very self-conscious about his eating in public, almost to the level of doubting whether he was ‘doing it right’.

A close relative of the solitary meal is the solitary drink in a pub. Over the years several female friends have told me how much they envy me this pleasure – a woman drinking on her own is going to get hassled all the time. Although recently I met a woman who said she didn’t let that stop her. I asked how she dealt with blokes trying to chat her up. ‘I just tell them to get lost.’

Eating alone is something I tend to do at run-of-the-mill places: it takes a certain style to ask for a table for one at a posh restaurant, a style I don’t possess. The exception is breakfast – that’s less of an occasion, quicker and more informal. More than once I’ve treated myself to breakfast alone at the Wolseley. (Their kedgeree is a winner, by the way.)

So next time you’re considering your eating out options, remember the advice of the business magnate Nubar Gulbenkian: ‘The best number for a dinner party is two – myself and a damn good head waiter.’


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