"Table for one please," I find myself saying, often. In those words I see no shame or sadness because taking myself out to eat alone is something I cherish in my week. If I look back on the moments of my life where I’ve felt total joy, the scene is usually the same: me in front of a plate of food, alone. One of my most memorable meals is a huge bowl of soup and kimchi dumplings which I ate slowly on a freezing afternoon in Seoul, sitting alone on a bench in a bustling market. I was 23 and lonely, travelling by myself, but with every sip of that soup I felt lifted, even though I had no one to speak to. When I went to sit, the lady who ran the stall gestured to the space beside me and held up two fingers. I gestured for one. She smiled softly and put extra dumplings in my soup. This is just one of many solitary meals that make me keep choosing to eat alone.
I love to eat. I have an appetite for almost everything and I don’t want anything limiting me from enjoying that, even if it means going out by myself. But I had to force myself to see it as a pleasure and a privilege, because for so long it was my only option. I lived by myself for many years, in a different hemisphere from my family, and have been single for most of my 20s, so the only way I could experience the food I wanted to eat was alone.
Sometimes it saved me, like when my loneliness became almost crippling – I knew I could book a table in a restaurant and have a conversation about wine with a waiter. It got me out of the house and doing something I loved (without having to cook). Even now that I don’t struggle with loneliness, I still purposefully go out to eat by myself. But the connotations of loneliness are still there; if it’s not a choice, it can be difficult. With almost half of all meals in the UK eaten alone and 34% of people often going a whole week without sharing a meal with someone, it’s important to consider whether it’s an action of choice or circumstance.
For me, it’s the best way to dedicate time to doing something for myself that makes me feel good on so many different levels, and I don’t think I’m alone. The online reservation service Bookatable has seen bookings for single tables rise by 38% over the last four years. I love seeing food writer Rebecca May Johnson take herself out for chocolate milkshakes, or read Chidera Eggerue write about the power of treating yourself to a table for one at Nando's. I don’t think the cost of the meal makes it feel any more or less special. Sometimes I’ve splurged (I once spent £80 on three courses and a cocktail) but they didn’t make me feel any better than meals that have left me with change from a tenner. Bliss is a few hours writing in my notebook and people-watching in my favourite greasy spoon just off Trafalgar Square. It was the first place I ate when I came to London and I could sit there all day, eating toast and drinking tea.
Yet for my friend Lauren, 25, there is nothing worse than going out to eat alone. "I’m insecure about looking lonely and anxious about not having something to do while I’m sitting there," she says. Similarly, my neighbour Grace, 22, wouldn’t do it "unless there was literally no other option; I think it would make me feel miserable". Again, the connotations of loneliness. Is this why we don’t see more women eating alone in restaurants?
I ask psychiatrist Dr Lopa Winters why some women feel like there are barriers to eating out by themselves. "As a woman there is still an imbalance in society about seeing a woman on her own eating," she says. "Women in this context have always been presented with a partner, a child or with her friends. There are so many social stereotypes of ladies who lunch, for example, that if you’re a lady lunching on your own, you’re sort of subverting your stereotype." We discuss how gender politics play into it, the role reversal – from the feeder to the fed – and why being a woman alone in a public space is perceived as an invitation for (unwanted) attention. With all this in mind, why am I – and other women – drawn to it? "It’s definitely an act of self-care," Dr Winters says. "I think you can be so mindful when you’re eating because the focus shifts on your surroundings and what you’re eating. It’s a practice of being mindful about your body and what you’re putting in it as much as it is an act of affection for yourself; it nurtures everything at once." With self-care such a hot topic right now, maybe we'll see more women taking themselves out...
One of my main sources of solo eating inspiration is Sophie Mackintosh, author of The Water Cure, who writes the newsletter Gastro Del Solo about her experiences of eating for one in restaurants. Like me, she relishes the meditative atmosphere of dining alone so we went out for a coffee to talk about it. She said: "Eating out at a restaurant by myself is the best time to really check in with how I’m feeling. Like a lot of women, for a long time food was a really difficult thing for me, so it’s so nice to reframe it as something good to do for yourself. Sometimes I take a book as a prop in case I get shy, but mostly I just try to be mindful and register how I’m feeling."
For my friend Imogen, 27, much of the joy is in the surroundings: "Eating alone I feel is really empowering, but only when I put my phone down because I can absorb so much more. The voyeur in me loves to observe everyone else." The idea of treating yourself and the autonomy of it appeals most to 24-year-old actress Maddison. "Sometimes, if an audition goes really well, I’ll treat myself to a nice meal afterwards. I relish eating by myself, as I feel like I appreciate the meal that much more. I like the independence of it. I can go where, and when I want."
Eating out alone is something every young woman should do at least once. Getting comfortable with it has been a gift and has made me stronger in other potentially uncomfortable situations. So when you next ask for a table for one, know that you alone are enough company. As I write this, I’m contemplating my next meal – the extravagance of oysters crosses my mind but I think I’ll just end up in Trafalgar Square, eating toast.