This article originally appeared in Live Better magazine. Enjoy the full edition here.
“It’s better than eating it in the restaurant alone like some loser!”
Elaine wants the supreme flounder dish in 150th episode of Seinfeld, The Pothole, but she lives outside the boundary to get delivery from her favourite Chinese restaurant. Spoiler alert: she uses a janitor’s closet in an apartment block across the street to get delivery. In this episode Seinfeld taps into the fear of solo dining and presents the comedic irony that Elaine would rather eat the dish in isolation surrounded by cleaning equipment. But I’d like to counter this sentiment and pitch a Seinfeld episode where Jerry discovers the perks of dining alone. He eats in peace without enduring a rant from George, Elaine’s honesty or one of Kramer’s schemes. All is well until Jerry discovers his nemesis Newman has come to the same conclusion and they bicker over who gets to claim the restaurant for solo mealtimes. In true Seinfeld fashion, Jerry will destroy his restaurant haven and be stuck in the company of his friends once again.
Seinfeld always found the comedy and its character’s ability to always lose control of situations, but life isn’t a sitcom. The choice to dine alone is a form of self-care and it takes courage to buck social norms and accept a table for one. I’ll take any chance to eat alone because I have two kids and it’s practically a holiday but there’s a few things to accept to make it feel more comfortable.
Okay, let’s start with the design of restaurants and cafes. Solo seats are rare unless there’s an option to sit at a bar on a stool. If I make the choice to dine alone, the waiter will most likely seat me at a table for two. Most of the time they won’t remove the second chair and it always looks like I’m waiting for someone or have been stood up. Next: the looks. I often glance around the space and make eye contact with other diners and their company. Suddenly, a story begins to form in my head. It’s the story about why I am dining alone based on what I suspect the other diners think: What did he do to lose all his friends? He could be the black sheep of his family? He must smell real bad. I can either chose to believe the stories – all of them complete lies – or be proud of my choice.
Dining alone is a confidence game. Self-confidence comes natural to some people, but it can be like a foreign language to others. Socialising is hard coded into dining spaces and when I eat a meal solo it feels like the entire weight of those expectations bear down on me. I feel like I’ve failed to pass the conditions of entry. Even the most confident person in the world can’t resist the doubt that plants itself in the mind when facing an empty chair. The key is to block it all out and focus on the perks of being alone. Take a breath and relax; it’s a chance to get a break and be mindful. I always focus on the food and remind myself that whenever I dine with others the food takes a backseat to conversation or juggling the demands of kids. Solo dining trips are also a great way to test out a venue before booking a big table for family and friends because it’s always awkward to have a bad dining experience with a big group of people.
A solo meal can often be a chance to get stuff done. I always try to avoid working through lunch or dinner solo, but I do use the time to read, listen to music or make lists of things to focus on. Uninterrupted time is valuable and if I spend most of the time at a venue alone worrying about what other people think, I’ll never get a chance to connect all the clues on a true crime podcast and solve a cold case. Mealtimes can be a great way to reset, too. If I’m having a bad day a solo meal gives me the chance to regather and put everything in perspective; things don’t seem as harsh after a meal and re-think.
One of the most underrated parts of dining alone is the chance to indulge in a little hospitality. Again, in the company of others I often miss how attentive staff can be a great café or restaurant because everything is often hectic. I’ve been in packed cafes surrounded by friends and felt lonely. Restaurants, especially the fancy ones, pride themselves on top-tier service. The irony is that despite any anxiety I often feel less lonely in the company of excellent wait staff. The best venues are often the ones who can make a solo diner feel at ease.
Seinfeld is one of my all-time favourite television shows, but I am happy to admit that Elaine is wrong. Nobody who eats alone at a restaurant is a “loser”. If the supreme flounder is so good, it should have been worthy of a solo trip. Often, I’ll be at a restaurant with my family and I’ll spot a solo diner and get jealous because I know they’ve cracked the confidence code. Well done, solo diner. Savour it.