Solo dining: the pitfalls and perks

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“Julio! Uno!” That was the waiter who greeted me at Barcelona’s Bar Cañete screeching my dining status to his colleague in the bowels of the restaurant, and indeed to the entire street. Fortunately, solo dining doesn’t bother me. As a food writer, it comes with the territory. And sometimes, frankly, I prefer eating alone. You see, I enjoy my own company. I’m quite good friends with me, and I’m exceptionally good friends with food, so our table always gets on like a house on fire: no bickering over who sits where, sulking over lack of menu options, or negotiations over who eats, or pays, what.

Thankfully, Australian restaurant staff tend to be fairly discrete about a diner’s solo status: there’s certainly no bellowing about it for the whole joint to hear. They’ll usher you in, park you somewhere appropriate, then let you get on with what it is you came to do. However, it helps to have a few solo dining strategies up your sleeve – or under your napkin. My modus operandi goes like this:

1) Dine early, so i can get in and out before every man and his wife and extended family rock up for dinner and i end up feeling like a black pudding at a vegetarian picnic.

2) Take something to do: a book to read, an article to write – anything that helps me avoid making eye contact with loved up couples who cast pitying glances my way. (Don’t pity me: I have partner, and also an independent life.)

3) Choose a restaurant amenable to solo dining. The latest fad of stools at a bar that front the kitchen kill two birds with one stone: i can meld into an informal dining scene and kill time eyeballing highly skilled chefs at work.

4) Go somewhere I really want to be: a new restaurant, a favourite local, somewhere with a particular dish I want to try – it makes the whole solo dining thing much more bearable.

However, strategies doesn’t always work. In Barcelona recently I dined so early one night – 7.30pm, which is practically siesta time for Spaniards – that i was one of only six people in the joint, which had the advantage of having tremendously personalised service, but the disadvantage of having the atmosphere of an alcohol-free wake. It was tremendous tapas at the trendy Ohla Gastrobar, though, I highly recommend it.

In Paris, the week before, I had so many “things to do” on the table at Auberge Flora – a copy of the Lonely Planet, iPad with Bluetooth keyboard, notebook in case in wanted to ditch digital and go back to my journalistic roots – that there was a ridiculous scramble to clear the decks when the two-tiered tapas plate and entourage – bread basket, olives, plate of ham, and glass of wine – were delivered. Multi-tasking at dinner can have its pitfalls.

On another occasion, I’d been advised by a Barcelonan food journalist – the adorable and insanely knowledgable Francesc Castro – to sample paella with razor clams at La Barraca (which has been open just a month) if i ventured to the city’s beach. I strutted in with my tan and my body cracks full of sand to learn that paella is only served for a minimum of two people (19 euro a head). Make it for one person “and it’s just not as good” the restaurant manager assured me. Disappointed, i explained my predicament: I was a solo diner with my heart set on this dish. “I’ll ask the chef if he’ll make it for one,” the manager eventually said. Two minutes later he returned: “No. The chef says he’ll only make a two-person paella for you … but you only have to pay for one.”

Maybe solo dining strategies do work, after all.

Note: The Food Sage only ate half of the paella!

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36 Comments

Filed under Gastronomic Travels, Reflections

36 responses to “Solo dining: the pitfalls and perks

  1. Claire @ Claire K Creations

    Haha I’ll take a 2-person paella for one any day! I’ve only had razor clams once before when I was in China and oh boy they were good. I bet the paella was amazing.
    I’m fine with eating alone too. I just have to stop myself eaves dropping and staring at other people imagining their stories.

    • Yes, solo dining is a good opportunity to people watch. I often wonder what people are thinking about me.
      This was my first introduction to razor clams … I am a big fan.
      Thanks for dropping by.

  2. Witty very relevant article thank you.

    I am on a one woman DIY 4 week tour around the countries that used to be Yugoslavia. I am also not fazed by solo dining and deliberately do not take a book, IPad etc. I have had some great spontaneous interactions dining alone. This week some interesting experiences.

    In Dubrovnik I stayed in a resort hotel where restaurant was on the edge of the sea. Fantastic. I was given a ‘by the glass’ table on 2 nights. A highly sort after position. Plenty to amuse me on both sea and land. Great food.

    In Ljubljiana the hotel recommended a nearby restaurant. Also recommended on TripAdvisor. Lovely courtyard nearly full of couples and groups at 8 pm.
    Ordered glass of wine to get a minute amount in a very large wine glass. First course took some time but worth the wait. Then I realised that many were ordering wine by various size carafes.
    I had to wait 45 minutes for main course and wine all gone so I had to grab waiter to get a second glass. I said that I had not been told that carafes were an option. She replied ‘It is logical’ Well not for me who had only just arrived in this city.
    Main course was excellent. This restaurant is obviously very popular, the food is good, not cheap but really the waiting and lack of attention by my waiter says that it is really not the place for a solo diner.

    Last night I went to a restaurant in the street. No small table was available so 2 extra tables were added cheerfully, I chatted to the Italian solo diner at the next table as we waited for the rearrangement of tables. Friendly helpful waiter, good service and half the price. I felt much more part of the dining experience last night even if the food was not of the high quality of the previous restaurant.

    • How lovely to hear about your travels and dining experiences. It’s always a bit pot luck when you arrive in a new city and have to work out where to eat, what to eat, when to eat, etc. I’ve had mainly hits, rather than misses, on my trip, which has so far taken in Paris, San Sebastián and Barcelona, but I tapped some good advice along the way. I think you are very brave not to take along a book, iPad, etc – they’re my safety net. Thanks for sharing your stories and I hope you find many more lovely solo meals on your travels.

  3. Wow, what a nifty treat to have the chef make paella for you.

    I have no problem dining alone but as you say, I bring my tablet or a magazine or something so I don’t have to stare into space while waiting for my food to arrive.

    If it’s a swanky place and I’m in the mood, I will tell the maître d that I’m open to a dining companion if another single comes in soon. I’ve met some lovely people this way.

    • Oh, I like your idea about being open to the company of other solo diners. I’ve got to admit, though, I always have a myriad things to do. And I agree, nothing worse than staring into space during the gastronomic down times!

  4. You’ve got to love a chef like that! He deserves to be hugely successful! I think dining for one is becoming far more common these days, particularly with the lunch crowd. Although if you want to eat amazing Thai fish, it takes two people. (When are you coming back? I’m dying for that fish, and I need company!) :)

    • Well, the chef’s generosity paid off, as I’ve just made a reservation to take a friend, who is flying in today, there for dinner tonight. His rice dishes are exceptional, too. Hungry just thinking about it!

  5. Fab post!! I hope you were able to ‘doggy bag’ the other half of that paella!

  6. Another great post Rachel, I am enjoying your adventures. With a young family I rarely dine out and never alone! But, I have a window of time once a week when I usually have coffee alone and I love it. It is relaxing and feels like a total indulgence.

  7. lizzygoodthings

    Loved this, Rachel, especially the line about ‘feeling like a black pudding at a vegetarian picnic’ which made me laugh out loud! My Peter often travels interstate and tells me about eating in the ‘lonely gits corner’. He usually calls me while he is dining. Reading or working at the table is a great idea too.

    • Ha ha – love the lonely gits corner expression. I can imagine that Pete would hate dining alone given all the wonderful delights you are always concocting at home! Thanks for dropping by Lizzy.

  8. Lovely reflection as always, Rachel. Like Lizzy, that line about black pudding made me laugh out loud. :-) You’re made of stronger stuff than I am, I reckon – I wrote about solo dining in Italy in 2010, mostly reflecting on how difficult I find it! You can laugh smugly at my trepidation if you find time for a read here: http://www.tammijonas.com/2010/08/29/solo-dining-in-a-social-country/ Enjoy the rest of what sounds like a wonderful trip! x

    • I will read your piece about dining alone in Italy when I am lounging by the pool of a villa in southern Spain this tomorrow, Tammy! And I do like a bit of black pudding … i was also a vegetarian for 8 years once, so I liked the reflection of the pudding at the picnic, too! Thanks for dropping by.

  9. Wow, if I didn’t like my own company so much, we’d probably be great dining pals. Only joking, but yes, I’ve travelled alone a lot (including San Sebastian 12 yrs ago – isn’t it great?) and at times dining alone can be challenging. Aside from wearing a big sign on my forehead reading “At home, I have plenty of friends”, I surround myself with lots of geegaws too. I’m waiting for a “single supplement” to be introduced …

    • Love the idea of a single supplement! And yes, San Sebastián is a blast. I also i suspect that people think I’m Billy No Mates, when they see me dining alone. It’s vanity – of not wanting people to think that of me – that is the hardest thing to overcome!!

  10. Oh I wish I liked dining alone but I just don’t have it in me :) And I know that there are great gains in trying out a restaurant solo but I have only done that once. But the paella story was such a cute one :)

  11. Loved that you got to have paella for one! That’s great! I was just in Barcelona and Paris too (in Madrid now actually!) and in a cooking lesson, the chef said the reason paella is usually served just for two is because they make it fresh for you so you get it in your own little paella pan, and when you get it for one its microwaved from leftovers that evening or even from yesterday! Even so, paella is delicious! Did you try squid ink paella? How was the razor clam paella? (:

    • Thanks for the heads-up regarding paella leftovers! Razor clam paella was outstanding – it was my first introduction to razor clams, and i loved them. I’ll keep my eye open for squid ink paella. Sounds like we’ve been holidaying on similar turf. Hope you’ve had a great time.

  12. grabyourfork

    I do love that about American diners where counter-style eating means that noone needs to feel left out when dining alone. Some cuisines or restaurants are definitely easier than others though!

  13. I used to do solo dining alot as I travelled round Europe for years selling which wasnt so much fun and I am only good at solo dining if sitting at a bar as you say…it is better. Nowadays dont really do much soloing between customers,family etc :).Spanish food really is designed to be shared….paella eaten the proper way is shared from the pan by everyone, then tapas is a sharing experience and then, of course, the porron(communal wine spouted jar) which is pased around the table and each one takes a spurt into the mouth(no lip contact with the spout is allowed!).Eating alone can be fun and necessary but sharing is so much more fun…..enjoy the rest of your trip!!
    .

    • Shared dining is certainly a fabulous experience, particularly as you say, when meals are meant to be shared. i haven’t dared use the porron yet during my travels in Spain. The cold afternoon beer is going down very nicely, though!

    • The best god damned paella i’ve ever had. Apparently the chef, who’s name i can’t remember at the moment and who has several restaurants in Barcelona, is renowned for his rice dishes.

  14. what a fantastic article! i am actually writing about *cooking* for one at the moment, so please don’t think i’m plagiarising you when it appears :-)
    i find eating out by myself easier when i’m travelling for some reason – not in my own city (and i don’t need many props – maybe a journal to make it appear as if i am a writer, capturing the next great novel). so perhaps i need to pretend i’m a tourist? i found a single woman dining alone was very acceptable in europe.

    • I’m looking forward to your piece about cooking for one … i’m never very inspired to do that, i’m afraid. i quite enjoy my solo dining experiences, i have to say. Love catching up with me!

  15. This has been such an interesting conversation. I like the idea of saying you are happy to share with another solo diner. Dining alone is certainly much easier than many imagine. I have had very many more great experiences than the occasional not so good one.
    I agree with e/ dig in while I often dine alone away from home I have not gone to either of the hatted restaurants in my village alone. Here will anyone I know think ‘ Doesn’t she have any friends’ and if I really want to go I can rustle up some others.

  16. Having a busy family, solo dining was never an option or even a thought for me – until I embarked on this new career. Now I’m skilled at doing it everywhere. I’m always armed to the teeth with phone, ipad etc, but I do generally prefer real live company.

  17. I am a massive fan of solo dining. I do it semi-regularly for fun.

    I remember I went to Cutler and Co in Melbourne for a Sunday long lunch which is set for two or more. They tried to half everything for me which was lovely, especially since I explained during my booking that I was travelling from interstate. Some dishes they simply couldn’t give me less, i.e. buffalo milk haloumi – I was given two whole slabs!

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