Life Food & Drink

Sunday 24 June 2018

Afraid to dine alone in a restaurant? Here are the golden rules to make it easy

As new research finds eating alone can make us miserable, Julian Glover argues it doesn't have to be so glum - plus you don't have to share dessert

Solo dining: Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love. Eating alone means no small talk, no shared dessert and best of all, no split bills
Solo dining: Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love. Eating alone means no small talk, no shared dessert and best of all, no split bills

Julian Glover

I want to eat alone - and eat happily. But killjoy economists in the UK have dreamed up numbers to claim the nation's mood is getting worse.

They say it's the fault of lives lived with too many microwaved mini-meals for one. Eat with others, they've calculated, and your cheerfulness levels rise by 0.22 points on their meaningless scale, which is apparently half as good as sex but probably still worth two bowls of boiled pasta. Lunch without a mate and they claim you'll be 7.9 points under the national average.

This is absurd. Eating alone is great. Not every day. Not all the time. And not - I suggest - as a slob in boxers in bed, dribbling cheese from a pizza crust onto the duvet. There have got to be rules. And the first of them is that to do it properly you have got to eat out.

Think of the advantages. The bill will be half as big, which means you can afford to eat somewhere nice. Goodbye, Nando's; hello, Rustic Stone. You are guaranteed the company of someone you like. Dining alone means no struggle with small talk. No being glared at if you flirt with the waiter - or order a second glass of wine.

You can eat when you want, where you want and how you want - and since the other day I wanted fish, I booked a table at a smart chipper.

Here, I hit my first challenge. Booking as a couple, the restaurant's website was ready to welcome me in at peak turbot-eating time. Turn into a sad single, however, and the only table was at 3.30pm. But there's a solution. Book late and show up early - so I did.

Treat yourself: When eating alone you may as well eat posh
Treat yourself: When eating alone you may as well eat posh

If you eat alone you might as well eat posh: the whole linen, whispering waiters and lots of silver on the table look.

Top marks to the team, too, for getting the most important basic of all for solo dining right: clearing the place opposite.

Nothing says loser on a failed date more than staring at an unused knife, fork and wine glass. A table for one has got to be a table for one. And no awkward questions were asked about whether I was enjoying my meal: just silent service, without a rush.

Other rules? No devices. No staring down and scrolling through Twitter as if some urgent message had just come in from your Tokyo HQ. Looking at a phone won't prove to others you have friends. If you are going online, go to Insomnia.

A paper is fine as long as it's this one - or something impressively obscure such as yesterday's Politiken (but make sure you actually can speak Danish if you try this - the waiters might). Opinion is divided on books. I took an Edwardian essay on the creation of British national parks from the library, which scored heavily on looks but failed on practicality: oyster juice stains on antique pages are not a good touch.

The confident thing for the single diner is to take no props along at all. The time for clutching at teddy bear substitutes is over. You have a meal to order.

Here, too, there are dilemmas. One or three courses? What to drink? You'll never finish that big bottle of San Pellegrino the staff wants to up-sell, but a mini one looks mean, so go for it anyway. A cocktail is allowable, so long as it is clear, stiff and sharp: a rum and fruit punch loses that rumba magic when you are the only one dancing.

Drink beer alone and you're one stop away from a six-pack of Dutch Gold on a bench. So I say go for wine: a half bottle of something French and red. If it's summer, send it back to be chilled. The waiters will be impressed.

As for food, you should have at least two courses. My half-dozen oysters slipped down nicely and the ice tray they came on gave me something to look at. A decent seafood appetiser of ceviche worked on a hot day: so did a tomato salad.

But the latter showed up another solo challenge. A side dish designed for two means a lot of heavy eating if you are on your own. Those greens everyone orders out of guilt soon lose their shine when you have to sit alone staring at a pile of fast-cooling garlic broccoli. And it is tempting to go crazy on the bread. Hold back.

Other issues: Should you try to overhear conversation nearby or ignore it? I now know a lot about someone's big company in the midlands. Apparently he's off to Nice next week for the summer. He drank a lot. If I knew who it was, I'd advise his shareholders to sell fast.

And finally there's dessert. Eat a pile of cream and raspberries on your own and you'll look like Billy Bunter. Stick to a restrained plate of cheese and a single espresso.

No brandy. After all, it's almost time to find a smart table for dinner - all alone, of course.

Irish Independent

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