I Ate Out Alone For One Week—& Here's What Happened

Photographed by Ben Ritter.
This story was originally published on January 5, 2016.

Generally speaking, I’m not afraid to be alone — in fact, I’m someone who values alone time. Like most people, I have dined alone in the form of a speedy workday lunch or some quick sushi on my way home, but I've always had the comfort and distraction of a book, magazine, or my phone. But here's the thing: I'm a food writer. Dining out is part of my job. Eating by myself in a restaurant shouldn't make me blink, let alone create sweaty-palm anxiety. So to start off the New Year, I decided to tackle an idea that was stuck in my mind from an old Sex And The City episode: I was going to say goodbye to my dining alone armor.

There were two simple rules for my week-long challenge:

1) I had to eat dinner alone for seven nights in a row.
2) No “armor” — meaning no phone, no book, no magazines. Nothing except sitting alone and eating.

I did a little research, which — to my surprise! — calmed me down a bit. Because it turns out that solo dining is having a bit of a moment. But I still worried: Would I be looked upon pitifully? Would I feel super uncomfortable? Be unbearably bored or lonely? Would the service be as attentive?

As soon as I realized that I was getting caught in a spiral of anxieties, I told myself to buck up: Maybe I would find that I really did enjoy my own company and look at experiencing a restaurant meal in a new light. If nothing else, I reasoned, I’d get to try some new restaurants, and maybe have a fabulous meal or two. Here are the 10 things that I learned in my week-long experiment.

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Day 1: At first, the pity is palpable.

I rehearsed my confident, "Table for one, please” several times, but when I actually said it to the hostess at a popular Southern Cajun restaurant, it felt contrived (and it was). The hostess hesitated for a moment (cringe), and then sat me at a very spacious booth. My waitress was nice, but I quickly felt like the booth was swallowing me up. The fact that I got antsy after just a few minutes of sitting alone with no one to talk to got me thinking – was I really okay being alone? Did I really enjoy my own company?

Before I could spiral into an existential crisis, my soup arrived, and I felt grateful for having something external to focus on! I must’ve looked like I needed serious cheering up because when I finished my soup and salad, the waitress tried to woo me with dessert. “You could take a slice of pie to go,” she offered. Then she sat down in the booth — my booth! — to tell me about the different kinds of pie. I know she was doing it to be friendly and sweet, but it just made me uncomfortable — and slightly nervous.

After she reviewed the flavors, for some reason I felt the need to share that my husband didn’t like peanut butter, so she would know that I did in fact have someone at home waiting for me. I skipped the pie, hastily paid the check, and left, happy to have one solo dining under my belt, escaping relatively unscathed.
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Day 2: I felt totally invisible.

After night one, I learned that one of the drawbacks of solo dining is that your space isn’t your own. It’s as if without other people forming an unspoken barrier around your table, you’re more exposed. I wasn’t feeling too jazzed about day two, so I decided to console myself with Indian food, one of my go-to comforts. The atmosphere inside was warm, the air filled with aromatic spices and I spied two other solo diners in booths — rejoice! — and sat down in the empty booth in between them. Tonight had potential!

My hopes for striking up conversation were dashed when it became obvious that ‘young working professional guy’ to my left wanted to eat and run. And single lady, who I swear gave me a sympathetic look when I sat down, had someone join her five minutes later. They must’ve been regulars, because one of the owners stopped by for a chat, sitting down on the banquette next to me — with her back to me and her elbow on my table! It made me feel totally invisible — and here I had been worried about being stared at.

After the ‘did-that-really-happen’ moment passed, I realized that it made me angry and disrespected to have someone invade my space like that. I drowned my sorrows in a plate of creamy curry (it was delicious), but all I wanted to do was lose myself in an episode of Homeland, so I paid the check and headed home.
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Day 3: I realized that everyone is kind of eating alone, even when they’re in groups.

I still felt uneasy and stalled leaving the house on day three — couldn’t I throw in the towel and admit that I just didn’t want to eat alone? I heaved a big sigh (stopping short of stomping my feet like a tantrum-throwing toddler) and headed for a newly opened neighborhood bistro. I immediately regretted my decision to forgo the bar seating (as the host offered), when I was shown to a four-top in the middle of the restaurant (maybe I’m a glutton for punishment). To my dismay, the other occupied tables lined the perimeter and I immediately felt totally isolated: From my perch I couldn’t eavesdrop or even people watch without feeling like I was staring.

I was getting fidgety and had to practically sit on my hands to avoid pulling my phone out of my purse and disappearing into Instagram. But when I scanned the room, I realized that more than half of the diners were staring at phone screens. Not only were they not gawking at me, they weren’t even looking at the people sitting across from them! I know that I’ve been guilty of this too, but seeing so many people doing it, even in the company of others, gave me pause: Are we always looking for an escape? Has social media become a crutch for social interaction? Do we place more value on sharing a photo on Instagram (and the number of ‘likes’ we get), rather than sharing the actual experience with someone you love? It’s almost like we subscribe to the mentality that if we don’t Instagram it or update our Facebook status, then the dinner never happened.

Note to self: No phones on the table for future dinners out.
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Day 4: I questioned my own manners.

Eating alone also made me realize that maybe I could be overbearing to dine out with. Because I love restaurants and food so much, I have very high expectations of how the food should taste. When all I had was the food in front of me, whether it was amazing or not, I never stopped to think about how my strong opinions and subsequent enjoyment of food might affect my fellow diners’ experience. And I realized that it’s not truly a dining experience unless you have someone to share it with. Perhaps it was time to stop attaching so much of my dining-out enjoyment to the food and the restaurant, and focus instead on the people. In the future, I vowed to take more photos of the people I’m out to eat with, and less of the plate in front of me.
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Day 5: I realized that ditching the table is the answer.

After the great booth invasions of 2015 and the loneliest night yet, I was feeling pretty bleak about my solo dining prospects when day four rolled around. One thing was for sure: I’d had enough of sitting at a table by myself, so I cancelled my online reservations to better control my dining destiny — or at least seating. I hit up a popular casual sushi spot, smugly breezed past a foursome waiting for a table, and slid into one of the open stools at the end of the sushi counter.

Since we were stretching into the end of the workweek, the restaurant was busy, and I was comforted by the bustle of servers and the action in front of me. The din of the restaurant allowed me to get out of my own head; instead of focusing on the fact that I was eating alone, I could just enjoy being out to eat and the pleasurable activity that it is. As I ate my sushi rolls, I let myself be mesmerized by the whirring ticket machine, rice scooping, and sushi rolling in front of me. It wasn’t a four-star experience by any stretch of the imagination, but sometimes a bite to eat is all you really want.
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Day 6: The world is not really made for solo diners.

Midway through my experiment, I thought about how I had been treated as a solo diner: While service was generally friendly and no less attentive, it was like servers felt they had to say something, which usually meant commenting on my order.

When I ordered an appetizer and an entrée at the Indian restaurant, the paneer pakora (like Indian mozzarella sticks) came 10 — 10! — to an order. After the bowls of rice and curry arrived along with a basket of naan, my meal for one looked more like an Indian wedding spread. “House rule is you have to finish everything before you leave,” said the co-owner, winking as he walked past. “I feel like I’m at my grandma’s house!” I joked back, but inside I felt embarrassed that he had called me out in front of other people. Without the support of another person sitting with me (for company and to share the meal), I felt vulnerable and exposed. When I went out for sushi, I ordered a miso soup to start, and both a shrimp tempura roll and a fried veggie-tamago roll. When my jumbo rolls were ready the sushi chef asked if I was hungry before handing over my platter of sushi with a knowing look.

I get that the food in front of me is an easy conversation starter, and I appreciated his effort to interact with me, but I felt so judged! He could’ve simply wished me bon appétit (or the Japanese equivalent).
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Day 7: Bar dining is where it’s at.

There’s a downtown restaurant I had suspected would be better enjoyed at the bar, so I decided to test my theory. When I settled into the handsome mahogany bar on a Friday night, the mix of Motown and oldies on the speakers instantly put me in a good mood. And with the bartenders occasionally breaking into song and exchanging banter, I could feel my outlook improving along with my mood.

I discovered that another advantage of solo bar dining is that you can course out the meal tapas style, depending on your hunger and whims. I was still hungry after a taco appetizer, so I settled on a cheese board, one of the restaurant’s specialties. Despite my apprehension of ordering a menu item tailor made for sharing, my single cheese arrived beautifully tricked out with a tangle of almonds and honey, apple slices, and crackers. And there was no one to fight me for the last piece of cheese!

I overheard the bartender talking to the couple next to me about how food makes them happy, so I joined the conversation by saying, "You can’t see it, but I’m doing a happy dance inside over this cheese plate!” For the first time, I found myself enjoying my solo dining experience — it felt less like a chore and more of a reminder of why I like dining out so much.
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Day 8: I started to enjoy my own company and meeting new people.

I’d been dying to try a new oyster bar-seafood spot, and confidently sidled up to the bar on a busy Saturday night next to a gal who looked like she might be dining alone, too. I was rewarded by my decision to dine at the bar with attentive and personalized service. The bartender made me a mocktail and offered me sound advice as I debated my order. “If you were worried about the fried oysters being too filling, then the Johnnycake will definitely be too much. Better to add two oysters Rockefeller to the broiled.” Finally, someone had my back!

When he came out from behind the bar to wipe down the counter, I heard the woman next to me say, "I wish he cleaned our counters that well at home!" Turns out, my fellow solo diner was his wife! After enjoying my oysters and a seriously amazing beet salad (see #10), the bartender tempted me into to staying for dessert with cherry chocolate bread pudding. I offered to share a bite with his wife, and then instantly worried I had committed a faux pas. “Is it weird that I offered?” I wondered aloud. “No, it happens all the time at the bar,” he reassured me.

I couldn’t tell if she took a bite to be polite, but when I discovered the hidden melting chunks of chocolate, I insisted she go back in for seconds, and to my delight, she happily obliged. The exchange gave me the rush I feel when I’ve tasted something really delicious and have someone to obsess over it with. I just never dreamed that was possible with a stranger. When I left the restaurant, I realized I was actually smiling, even grinning.
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Day 9: I almost don't want to bring my phone to meals anymore.

Without armor I realized that I felt more relaxed and open, particularly at the bar, and the staff responded to that. I found that I was able to have the same kind of dialogue with them as I would debating what to order with foodie friends, only they could go into more detail about the menu, and offer me the kinds of details I geek out over. On the taco-and-cheese board night, one of the managers asked how I liked the pork belly tacos and then echoed my sentiments saying, "I'm having a love affair with them lately." I asked what else was good and she waxed poetic about the slow smoked pork shoulder, so I filed the intel away for a future meal out.

Once the miserable memories from the first few days faded and I got used to dining out alone, I also found that I really did enjoy my own company. When I’d said that before, it more likely referred to taking a walk with headphones in or reading a book at a local coffee shop. Being able to truly unplug and disconnect actually allowed me to reconnect. Without my phone, I was able to observe other people’s behavior and interactions, which has prompted my resolve to dine without my phone (okay, save for an Instagram snap or two) so that I can be present in the moment and truly enjoy someone else’s company, too.
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Day 10: Eating alone without armor is kind of where it's at.

When I was at the Indian restaurant there was an abundance of food in front of me (not that I’m not up for a challenge), but instead of totally rushing (particularly after being called out, and even though I had wanted to bolt ASAP), I got lost in the ritual of eating. There was something comforting and immensely enjoyable about heaping rice and spooning curry onto my plate, adding a bit more here and there to even out the ratios, and then mopping up the sauce with the freshly baked naan bread. At the oyster bar, I really felt like I was having a ‘treat yo self’ moment. The broiled jalapeno butter oysters and cheesy baked oysters felt like an indulgence, and I’ve never tasted a beet salad so delicious. A beet salad, for crying out loud! I’ve never effused about one, but it was like my taste buds had developed new super taste receptors: I really savored the earthy golden beets and felt the vinegary tang of the pickled persimmons roll over my tongue, and even wondered aloud, what gave it that spicy kick?
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Post-Solo Dining Experiment

By the end of my week-long challenge, I realized that I had come away with some enjoyable experiences. I understood the appeal of taking oneself out for a nice meal, and freed from my armor, I learned a few things about myself, too. After my last night out, an unmemorable (and that’s okay), quickie bite at a local pizza parlor, I texted my husband to tell him that my solo dining experiment was finished. Funnily enough, the hastily tapped out text jumbled a bunch of the letters, but my iPhone recognized the autocorrect for ‘solo dining.’ Maybe solo dining wasn’t going to become my new normal, but it was a new part of my vocabulary.
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Tips for First-Timers (and you should try at least once!)

1. Dine at the bar. It’s tailor-made for solo diners and the best part is you don’t need a reservation. Plus, you can eat and drink at your own pace, ordering one more of this or a little something sweet, without worrying about holding up a table. And you don’t have to share the last bite.

2. Pick a style of restaurant that includes some type of singles seating as a natural extension, like a sushi counter. It’s like having built in entertainment and provides a natural conversation starter if you’re looking to strike up a chat with fellow diners. Build up to dining solo at a table. When you do, you might find that it’s easier to secure a reservation for one than you thought. If there is partial banquette-style seating (around the perimeter), ask to be seated there so you can face out into the restaurant — with the wall at your back you’ll feel less exposed. Plus you can try the impossible-to-get-a-reservation places without the burden of coordinating all of your friends’ impossibly busy schedules.

3. Put your phone away! Learning to be comfortable in your own skin without any armor is pretty liberating. It’s amazing what you observe about other people and the tidbits of conversation you overhear. And who knows, you may learn to truly appreciate your own company. Plus, you never know who you might end up meeting or sharing dessert with.
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