I remember my then-fiancé and I talking about dining solo. Throughout his marriage, he ate alone in restaurants. In contrast, I was team never-eat-alone, take it to-go, and eat it in the car. He was team eat-alone. While not a huge insight into our relationship, you can see how opposite we were. It’s funny, out of all the banal conversations you have with someone, the ones that stand out. That conversation stayed with me. Coming out of the other side of the break-up, I began solo dining.
I dipped my toe into solo dining on business trips. Slowly. Traveling weekly afforded an on/off strategy. Yes, I devised a strategy. I always have to have a plan. I told myself I was doing it because I didn’t have any other option and it was clear I was there on business. First, I used a laptop as a shield. (How else can you communicate busy-working-woman without saying a word?) Slowly I became more confident. I felt less compelled to use my laptop. Sometimes I simply put in headphones and had my “shield” near me just in case I needed it to ease anxiety. That was three years ago.
Isn’t it funny that even though we’ve had two years of canceled plans, it’s still a delight when you have canceled plans? That’s how I felt in January when a good friend had to cancel. We had reservations at Apolonia in South Loop and I really, really wanted their banana bundino dessert. I felt at odds with myself. A bit of restlessness. I knew a self check-in what was the doctor (therapist) would recommend. (When I feel myself constantly in turmoil, my therapist always asks if I’ve been neglecting self-care and I almost always have.) I love dressing up for any sort of date! So why not for the most important relationship I have? The one with myself.
You get used to it.
The host subtly waits for you to explain where the other person is. Sometimes they’ll ask. If they’re also single they’ll be able to spot what you’re doing and minimize the questions.
“Are you sure you don’t want to sit at the bar?”
“Ma’am we have to wait for all parties to seat you.”
To begin with, the first time you say “It’s just me” doesn’t’ feel natural. But you say it again and then it starts to feel… normal.
“It’s just me.” *smile intensifies and dares them to ask another question*
“No, I made a reservation for one and would like to be seated.”
I sat at my table, right by the bustling open kitchen. I brought a notebook. When you’ve been out of sorts with yourself, you want to be ready for that aha moment that breaks the dam. I learned early on in therapy I need to be able to express what that exact aha moment felt like and explore it.
You become aware of things when you’re solo dining. The people enjoying themselves. In contrast, those not. Speculating on people’s lives. Listening to orders being called out. Being able to tell if it’s a good service night or one that drones on. Sometimes you catch the eye of the expeditor and exchange a smile. If you’re lucky they’ll send you an item or two just because. Meanwhile, you turn your attention to the dining room. The dates going really, really well. In contrast, the one neither wants to be on.
No one, and I do mean no one, thinks about you as much as you think they are thinking about you. That’s what I remind myself continually, but especially when dining out. I get get the luxury of being in the moment and all that comes with it. Everyone in that restaurant is a blip on the radar. Lose the ego and know you aren’t going to remember them and they aren’t going to remember you.
Throughout dinner, I lost myself in writing. Every time I dine solo something comes to me. A moment of inspiration, a breakthrough. That night I had the moment I needed. In order to receive it, I had to find silence and calm in my own company. Somewhere between the appetizer and dessert, I gained the clarity I’d been seeking in all the wrong places. You can’t plan a breakthrough, you just have to be ready for it. Notebook closed, check signed, final sip of espresso martini savored, fully content. I drove home listening to some of my favorite music and closed out the night with my girl Eleanor.
How to Become Comfortable Dining Solo
My story with dining solo is similar to growing a new skill or muscle. First it’ll feel unfamiliar. That is until you continually do it. It takes training too. And that’s what you’ve got to do, make time and be intentional. You have to learn how to find your comfort. Remember, even I, the one who would rather eat in my car found a way. It wasn’t overnight success, but it was intentional, sustainable progress.
Bring something that makes you feel comfortable. Laptop, headphones for podcasts, notebook, book. Something that acts as your “comfort” item.
For instance, don’t go to a place everyone knows you. Alternatively, try something brand new. I’ve found it’s easier when you feel anonymous. It’s hard to try something new when your brain wants comfort and the familiar.
If you’re anxious like me, there’s no shame in already knowing exactly what you want to minimize stress. Might I suggest something? Lunch is a great way to ease in! Or breakfast! Dinner can often feel formal. In contrast, people think nothing of a lunch or breakfast for one. It feels less… weighty.
Have a favorite solo spot? In Chicago I love almost every place as a solo diner. It’s so much easier to get in. For breakfast (and as pictured above), it’s Ann Sather’s for their divine cinnamon rolls. I’ve done enough cinnamon roll scientific tasting to confirm these are in my top 5 ever. Equally important as how they taste? There’s two. And do I share them? No. It’s a gift from current me to at-home me.
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