Reading time: 5min.

by Michael Lee

Table for one, please

Eating alone in public makes some people feel uncomfortable, especially in a restaurant. They are the sad and the unaccompanied. The lonely ones who dare eat amongst the coupled and acquainted as they peer snidely from behind their menus.

They are the ones who can’t get a date and must face these social outings like outcasts. Restaurant culture is built around eating with companions, sharing and talking, so when you see someone eating alone in a restaurant, do you think they’re brave, lonely or just ridiculously uncool? From day one we learn to eat in the company of others, and we figure out fast that the kids who eat alone at school are the kids who don’t have anyone to eat with. Socially, eating alone is not a sign of our strength, but of a lack of social standing.

People who venture into eating establishments and dine at a table alone are scrutinized and ridiculed, and I can talk from first-hand experience. The looks of disbelief, shock, embarrassment and judgment spread across every face in the venue, “Table for one please” I muttered quietly as the sound of cutlery falling on to the floor sends ripples across the room.

It felt like I was being shown to the electric chair ready to be fried and executed as all the restaurant diners hide their disbelief behind shielded menus. I kept my head down in belittled shame and followed the waiter leading the way to my destination, the dreaded table for one.

The culture of eating alone spreads far and wide across the world and not just in the Brick Lane alleyway of Shoreditch. In fact, in Thailand, eating alone is thought to attract bad luck, and in South Korea, many restaurants discourage solo dining. I mean, perish the thought an unaccompanied person eating an overpriced fancy hamburger with chips alone. Shudder!

So I went through the motions and hesitantly proceeded to order my starter as the waiter looks on in close examination. A single person eating alone tucking into his Cheese’n’sausage balls with dip is apparently not a priority as the stuck up and pompous waiting staff blissfully passed by my table like a gust of wind without even a blink of an eye. So I waited, awkwardly twiddling my thumbs as tumbleweed rolled past my empty table. All I wanted was a top up of my small glass of sparking water but I was left salivating at the mouth for service and compassion.

Maybe they assumed I was simply waiting for my significant other or companion to join me and would attend to me when they arrived? But why do I need someone sitting across from me to eat and drink? Can a minus one not enjoy a meal alone? Without the distraction of a good book or app browsing while sticking chips onto my fork, can I just not exist in my own little world and enjoy my meal without the social stigma?

I can literally feel the stares and daggers coming from all corners as I tuck into my dessert. What should have been a glorious moment of basking in the delicious delight of what was in my mouth was instead spent worrying about what others think about me. Am I holding my spoon correctly? Am I making too much noise? Where should I look as I eat? Questions, questions, questions as I polished off the remaining crumbs on my plate.

But what is it about eating alone in a restaurant that makes us feel so out of place? We’re ingrained to believe that meals are communal activities. Society is so accustomed to constant distraction that the act of sitting quietly in an intimate environment like a restaurant leaves us feeling exposed. With no one sitting across the table to keep us occupied, we wonder what those others sitting in the room make of our solitary status.

So with the three course meal finally devoured there is one more obstacle the single eater must pass in order to escape the glances of judgment, the bill. As I waited patiently and anxiously for the attention of the waiter to request the bill I was left feeling scared and uncomfortable, do I wave at them to get their attention and risk looking like an idiot if they don’t see me? Do I take that chance and try to make eye contact with them and hope they acknowledge me with a smile and a nod or do I wait here, staring at an empty plate and just hope that someone will notice the strange and peculiar human looking into thin air and offer to help?

So I just sat there, pretending to drink my glass of water even though the glass was empty, I pretended to be messaging friends on WhatsApp even though I have no friends, all while awkwardly avoiding any eye contact and praying that the waitress would notice the lonely figure alone in the corner and take pity and put me out of my misery. Check please!