Article by Joanna Sarah-Freedman
Once regarded as something embarrassing or deeply uncool (the sort of thing your dad would do on his lunch break) over the years, eating without a companion has become rather trendy.
Keen to see what all the fuss was about, I took myself out for a solitary meal just a few days ahead of Valentine’s Day. Because what could be a better act of self love than dating yourself?
Solo dining is no longer something to be pitied (Credit: Unsplash)
Now before we begin, I should probably tell you a bit about me. I’m 27, perpetually single, and after a pile of pretty rubbish suitors on Hinge, the prospect of a meal by myself should really feel like a welcome relief.
For some unexplained reason, though, instead, the very idea makes me cringe.
It’s weird, I’ve always been pretty happy in my own company; I go out to cafes on my own regularly, and will even have a drink alone whilst waiting to meet a friend, but for some reason, sitting alone in a restaurant feels different. It feels somewhat taboo, especially as a young, sociable woman in her 20s.
‘What if people think I’ve been stood up?’ I ponder. ‘Isn’t everyone going to wonder where my friends are?’
Determined not to get in my own head, I resolve to jump into my solo dining experience head first and leave such anxieties at the door.
Romantic dinner for one? (Credit: Alamy)
Step 1. Book a restaurant
Easy enough, right?
In London, there are plenty of casual spots I could take myself: Japanese noodle bars with benches I could perch on inconspicuously, and ‘pizza-by-the-slice’ joints, that I could pop into, and leave promptly two minutes later.
But that’s not the point, is it?
So, in the spirit of proceedings, I decide to opt for somewhere a little fancier; somewhere that I’ve wanted to try for ages. The place is called Campania, and it’s an independent Italian restaurant in Hackney, not far from where I live.
‘Wow, that was easy,’ I think. I can’t remember the last time I’ve picked a dinner venue in minutes, without having to make a poll on a Whatsapp group, or wait for a mate to confirm if she’s still on that zero-carb diet.
Then, seconds later, comes the first roadblock. As I go to book, I notice the smallest party size on offer is a table of two.
The first hurdle (Credit: Resy/Joanna Freedman for Twisted)
Suddenly, I feel painfully aware of my imminent solitude.
Step 2. The run-up
I’ve had to tell two friends that I’m not free on Tuesday because I’m going for dinner on my own.
“You’re what?,” asks one, a little baffled, whilst another jokes that at least this date offers less chance of getting ghosted.
There are others who get it, though. Several friends say they’ve done it before, (if only a quick meal whilst out and about) and my mate Daisy went to Rome by herself last year and said it was super liberating, sitting alone with a big bowl of pasta and a bottle of wine.
Getting ready for my solo date, I envisage myself doing the same, except in chilly Hackney. I’m into it.
‘I’m a strong, independent woman,’ I tell myself. ‘I can do this.’
Step 3. Table for one
Table for one? (Credit: Joanna Freedman for Twisted)
Arriving at the restaurant, the first thing I note is that it’s more romantic than I remembered. It’s a quaint southern Italian neighbourhood restaurant off the cobbled pavements of Columbia Road Flower Market, with big, toasty heaters out-front and hanging lights visible through the windows.
Inside, the tables are rustic and wooden, with big, waxy candles on them, and there are brick walls, with rows of coloured bottles sitting neatly behind a bar.
Imagine the place where they slurped spaghetti in Lady and The Tramp – it’s like that, except I’m not by the bins, I’m actually in the restaurant.
The waiter ushers me through the door and pulls two menus out.
“Oh, it’s just me,” I tell him, having rehearsed said line over and over in my head on the way there.
He looks surprised, but only momentarily. Then, I’m sat down in a really rather nice restaurant with only myself for company.
I order a glass of Prosecco: 1) to take the edge off, and 2) because I deserve it.
Quick, awkward selfie with the Prosecco (Credit: Joanna Freedman for Twisted)
Step 4. People watching
Looking around, the first thing I notice is I’m smack bang in the middle of the room.
“God, everyone’s gonna be looking at me,” I think.
Surprisingly, though, they’re not. The couple to the right of me clearly only have eyes for each other, so much so that they’ve barely touched their burrata, and the family to the left are chatting away quite happily – I wonder the occasion, perhaps a birthday, or is one of them visiting London?
From my seat, there’s a perfect view of the chef working away in the kitchen, too, knocking up pasta sauces and plating everything beautifully.
I probably wouldn’t have noticed any of this if I was with friends. It’s certainly true that solo dining attunes you to your surroundings.
Step 5. The Meal
How much do you order when it’s just you? I’m handed four big chunks of sourdough and a bottle of olive oil before my meal has even begun, but I’m up for the challenge.
Eating on your own certainly does unlock an inner cave-man-like greed. I want to eat half the menu.
Maybe I will. After all, who’s judging me?
Given that nobody else is there to roll their eyes, I take my time going through every Italian menu item and googling it, before ordering. Then, I look on the restaurant’s Instagram (and its tagged photos) to see what tickles my fancy.
I’d never take this long usually, but there’s something deeply satisfying – dare I say liberating –about stopping and actually considering my order, without any time pressure or food envy that a fellow dinner guest brings along with them.
Dinner is served (Credit: Joanna Freedman for Twisted)
Solo diners often profess to eat slowly, and mindfully, but I’ll admit this isn’t my forte.
I’m halfway through my bread when my main arrives: wild mushroom Tortelli, which is a type of filled pasta made in Lombardy. It’s epic, with rich, earthy flavour notes and a different textured mushroom in every bite.
I’ve brought a book, but alas it feels a bit cliche to start reading ‘The Unexpected Joy Of Being Single’ whilst eating out alone, and my phone is becoming dangerously attached to my hand – somewhat of a prop to remind myself that I actually have loved ones to talk to.
Determined to make the most of the experience, I resolve to ban myself from both, at least until I’ve finished my pasta.
Try as I might, I probably take about 15 minutes to do just that. But you know what? Those 900 seconds of quiet munching change the game.
Honestly, could I be more single right now?! (Credit: Joanna Freedman for Twisted)
Step 6. Pudding
The waiter comes over and asks if I want dessert. Full disclosure, my boss has already told me I can take it to go, but to my surprise I actually want to stay.
I order tiramisu, and it’s indisputably better than any man that sitting in front of me could be.
Who needs a date when you’ve got a hefty slab of booze soaked finger biscuits and whipped cream? Not me.
It’s at this point I know I’ve found my groove. I find myself eating the whole thing, mouthful by mouthful, in complete and utter silence. And I hate to admit it, but I feel empowered.
The waiter comes over and asks how my food is, and I mutter a reply through mouthfuls of dessert.
Gone are my insecurities about what people think of me. Now, I’m just enjoying solo dining in its purest sense: being fed and cared for until completely content.
Tiramisu > men (Credit: Joanna Freedman for Twisted)
Step 7. The verdict
Walking home, it dawns on me that dining alone is a bit like meditation, or yoga. You feel a bit uptight and stupid at first, but when you let yourself go, it really is an act of self-care.
It’s no surprise that in an increasingly health-conscious world, it’s something that’s becoming more and more popular.
OpenTable reported in 2019 that, in the UK, solo dining was up 160 percent across a four year period. And believe it or not, it’s now more common to seat a party of one than any other table size in the States.
“In society, there’s always been a commonly shared feeling of embarrassment with acting alone, in terms of what would be considered social outings,” psychologist Darren Stanton tells me.
“This comes from a pressure to seem sociable and popular. However, with this growing ‘table for one’ trend, eating alone is becoming more accepted by our peers and the public.”
“From a psychological perspective, the art of dining on our own can offer many benefits,” he explains. “You’re not running on someone’s else’s time and instead can spend as long or as little as you like.
“You can take time to understand and think for yourself, whether that’s reflecting on your week or planning ahead, which can relieve stress and anxiety”.
We live in a world that is increasingly fast moving and burn-out is rife. So whilst dating yourself might go against every fibre of your being, take it from me, it’s good for the soul.