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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

How to Dine Alone

I'm a bit of an intro-jerk who is happy to do most of my activities alone. But even I find it intimidating to dine solo. I'm not talking coffee-shop or fast-casual (the awful name for places like Chipotle and Panera). I mean a restaurant with cloth napkins and a wine list.

Like most activities, there are ways to not only  ease the pain but also to make this enjoyable. Here are some:

Just think about how fancy you are. 

The last time I dined alone I was in Birmingham, Michigan for work and you know what? I was fancy. I was staying at a Holiday Inn stocked with a box of red wine I purchased at Walmart, and I was driving a rented Corolla, people. But when I decided to forego delivered pizza and eat like a grownup in a real restaurant, I upped my fancy just a bit, and this gave me confidence. It said, "Yes this lipstick and necklace demonstrate that I'm a successful and independent 45-year-old* woman and I am here to dine alone, thank you very much."

Get Happy Already

When I walked into that adorable boutique restaurant, I smiled at the maitre' d and said politely—if not a little coyly—"It's just me tonight... if you want to seat me at the bar that's fine." With mildly theatrical protest, he said, "No, sweetie, we've got a perfect spot for you in our lounge." And it was the perfect spot. Just taking a few minutes to be friendly with the man who controlled the most important part of my evening—where I sat—paid off in spades. He checked on me twice that evening.

I spoke with my server Theresa about solo diners and asked her if she had any perspective or pointers. She had this to offer: "Honestly, the best thing you can do is be friendly. I think a lot of people are insecure when dining alone so they have a bit of a chip on their shoulder. I look at a solo diner and I think—now there's someone who knows how to dine!"

So get the chip off your shoulder and embrace your solitude. People aren't thinking that you don't have any friends. They're thinking that you know how to treat yo'self or that you are on business and know how to treat yo'self. Win win win win win win win....

Be good to the staff and they will be good to you, especially when you are a lone duck surrounded by large tables being auto-comped on their six bottles of wine. (Theresa swore she doesn't evaluate a table based on their tip, but it doesn't hurt to be a little more generous than you might be when dining in a group—think of it as a thank you for the specialized attention you receive.)

Be Engaged

"This is an exchange. I'm here to bring you what you ask for, but you have to communicate that to me," said Theresa. Theresa and other servers are not mind-readers. Servers also don't like to interrupt people. If you look like you're having a romantic dalliance with your smartphone, you're likely to be ignored. Plus it's just kind of rude.

I am not barring all phones, the warm crutch of a book or whatever it is that occupies you and fuels your confidence to dine alone. Just make sure you are aware of your surroundings and follow these phone etiquette tips:
  • Don't talk on the phone; if you receive a call, excuse yourself.
  • Turn your ringer to vibrate or silent.
  • Remember to come up for air; make occasional eye contact with the server to communicate your needs or simply your contentment.
Eavesdrop like there's no tomorrow.

This is the best part. When there's a television or some juicy eavesdropping to be had, it is difficult for me to focus on the person or people I'm dining with. Dining alone is a free pass to indulge in this deliciously rude pastime. Overheard that night:
"Julia Child was quite the drunk. She once bumped into my dinner companion's husband outside a liquor store in Boston and she said, 'Isn't this just the best liquor store!?'"
Solo will probably never become your preferred dining state. But stand up tall, give it a try and let me know how it goes. Have you any pointers to share?

* a joke, because everyone has thought I was nearing my 40s since I was 15 years old

20 comments:

  1. Roxie said...

    I find if I stand tall, head up, have a face like I know exactly where I am and who I am, and act like I have a purpose, nobody questions me or thinks it's strange that I'm solo...or at least that's what I tell myself. Then again, it could be the talking to myself that actually makes no one question me.

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  2. The problem I always have when eating alone is where to fix my eyes. Naturally, my instinct is to watch the most interesting person/table in the room, but that comes off, at best, as a little creepy or sad and, at the worst, completely nosey or as an invitation to proposition me. Glancing casually around the room only seems natural for a few minutes before one starts to look like one has some kind of detachment disorder (a la Nell), and staring down at your meal makes you look like you're some kind of angry sadsack. Thus, I read something or stare at my phone and look like a shallow twit.

    WHERE DO I LOOK???

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  3. WOW! I must be the only person in the world who actually prefers to dine alone! Ha! (Seriously, I just find that I can't focus on the food and the setting when I'm with someone.) Nonetheless, as a sole diner, I can completely agree with this post. One of my own favourite things to do when dining alone is to pretend I'm a restaurant critic: I find it makes me focus on the whole experience so much more.

    In reaction to Erin's comment, I occasionally struggle where to look myself, but this is where your seating is key: I find it most convenient to sit by a window (looking at the people outside is endlessly fascinating) or near the bar (where you can freely look at the staff, which is usually not perceived as creepy). If nothing like that is available, well, I usually look at my plate or admire the splendor of the interior design. ;o) Hope this helps!

    Oh! And I migrated here from Yes and Yes... of course. :o)

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  4. I had made the goal of dining-alone so long ago that I forgot about it. It terrifies me. I also am an introvert, but worse- I am shy and insecure most of the time and fear that people see that before they see anything else about me, and the thought of being seen sitting in a restaurant alone surrounded by those people is intimidating. I like your sugegstion to be fancy. I will, I will be fancy- I will be fancy when I work up the nerve to dine with myself without a book or phone as my safety blanket. And when I do, I will tell you all about it.
    Thanks for the inspiration.

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    Replies
    1. I can't wait to hear how your adventure goes, Je.na. You can do it!

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Your comments are why I get out of bed in the morning. Just kidding. But I do like them.