The Fine Art of Dining Alone When You're a Socially Anxious Man

Solo dining has shed its stigma, but that doesn't mean things can't get awkward. A retired chef shares the pros and cons of eating at the bar or a table, what the heck to do with your hands, and how to zone out politely.

A tattoed man dines alone at a restaurant
Photo: FG Trade / Getty Images

In my past life as a restaurant chef, I frequently ate alone. In some cases, it was due to my odd schedule. Having only Monday off and being a curious cook eager to experience what other restaurants were doing in the city — be it tacos or degustation — the likelihood of finding a dining companion willing to run the gamut of price points at the beginning of the week was slim. I ate very well, but most often as a party of one. In more recent years, it was work travel. Work almost always took me to a great food city where I was often more inclined to experience the restaurant scene by myself than to hermit with a room service club sandwich after a day of travel.

In the first instance, 25 or more years ago, there was a stigma attached to solo dining. I'd like to write that off as perception because it seems needlessly cruel, but talk amongst the service staff in restaurants I worked showed me that it was not. According to chatter in the server station, dining by oneself painted someone as a capital L loser. I wasn't going to let the chatter of early twenty-somethings affect my dining experiences. But even in a city known for its excessive liberalism, I struck a bit of a bold figure that drew looks from customers and staff alike. The big guy with funny hair and hard-to-cover tattoos was an enigma. So, I devised a few strategies to increase my chances of a pleasant outcome.

Thankfully, cultural perceptions have changed, and solo dining doesn't require as many self-defense mechanisms as it used to. The strategies have changed with time, but the foundations remain the same.

Eating at the bar is a great idea — some of the time.

The easy, obvious choice is sitting at the bar. It's almost universally accepted that solo dining should occur in this space because people feel less on display in the more communal setting offered by a bar. Understandably, a restaurant sees an empty seat at a two-top table as a wasted potential for revenue and will steer you to the lounge. Curiously, a party of three seated at a four-top doesn't elicit the same reaction, and you shouldn't feel obligated to be seated at the bar if tables are available in the dining room.

The primary question is, how solo do you want to dine?

While not without its merits, eating at a restaurant bar comes with certain drawbacks. Bar design typically allots 18 inches with a three-inch buffer on either side, allowing six inches between customers. After a day of travel, I'm often not great with being that up close and personal with more humanity, especially when the spatially unaware in the neighboring seats overflow into mine. I either have to ask for space, a questionable action for a socially awkward yet irritated person, or contort myself to accommodate their overreach and still have access to my plate.

Even if they aren't encroaching on one's territory, eating next to other people can go many ways. I'm a rather large, cisgender, white, hetero dude, and I'm well aware that I enjoy certain advantages that others do not, especially in the area of unwanted engagement and the potential for unpleasantness or danger that can accompany it. I have the luxury of taking my neighbor's temperature before choosing to interact or remaining silent. Sometimes I want interaction with other folks. Sometimes, I want to isolate myself. Sometimes, I want to dine.

A table is a good option, too, but things can still get awkward.

In those cases, I want a table. Suppose I'm getting multiple courses or working my way through a tasting menu. In that case, I like the same luxury of space afforded to non-solo diners where I can enjoy various plates or have the space for wine pairings without fear of some or many of the pieces ending in my lap. My social anxiety is such that I'll occasionally bring something to read so that I'm not faced with the awkward decisions of what I should be looking at or doing with my hands while waiting to order or for food to arrive. I also might take notes on inspirations from the meal or service elements that I found notable. In either case, I want a small amount of room to facilitate these activities that a bar seat doesn't afford. Books also reinforce the "I don't want to be bothered" vibe. In a world where everyone is fiddling with their phone, reading a book is a dedicated solo activity that isn't easily mistaken for killing time and is less likely to invite interruption.

The bar can be a positive experience, don't get me wrong. If I want interaction or if I just want to eat, drink, and get on with other activities, the bar is better suited for me. I've had great experiences and made friends in other cities from the exercise. Somehow I feel it easier to engage a bartender for recommendations on drinks and have been exposed to some incredible spirits that I might never have encountered otherwise. I busy myself with my phone if I feel the need to ease my awkwardness or stare at the TV if they have one. The opportunities for people watching are far superior seated at the bar. It's easier to just exist, if that's the mood, and not feel awkward in a space where some are eating but others are drinking and socializing.

Civility is always on the menu.

I'm always polite and gracious no matter where I sit alone. It shouldn't be surprising how far these go in ensuring a good experience. I engage the server to the level of both of our comfort. If I have questions or comments, I'll voice them. No matter the degree to which I wish to be alone, please, thank you, "I'm fine, how are you?" and other such exchanges of social civility are never overlooked.

Eating alone has been normalized since my days as that capital L. Work dynamics, home dynamics, or just wanting to eat something without the consensus-building necessary to dine with another have made solo dining commonplace. Knowing what you want from it and how to achieve it can make a difference in a perfunctory meal or dining experience. It's a build-your-own-adventure.

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