We’re being ridiculous and we know it, but we still feel stigmatized by solo dining. Take a confident, capable, rational adult, plunk him down at a table for one, and residual memories of a middle school cafeteria come back to haunt him.
Everyone’s staring I look like a pathetic friendless loser I’m going to die a lonely virgin.
A scene from the 1984 movie The Lonely Guy dramatizes those fears. Steve Martin, the titular solo diner, requests a table for one. You can hear a pin drop as the restaurant’s service grinds to a halt. Busboys stop clearing, diners’ forks freeze in midair, and out of nowhere a theatrical spotlight bears down on the poor sap as he follows the smarmy maître d’ to his table.
It’s the middle school scar that never fades.
Contemporary media continues to fuel the insecure with the parade of odd characters on the Tumblr table-for-1 and on Facebook’s heavy-hearted exercise in dining desolation I feel sad when I see an old person eating alone. Ikea’s 2014 April Fools offering of the Löne Singleton Dining Table, a mirrored table for one, hewed so close to the stereotype it left many wondering if it was really a put-on.
One woman who believed other diners saw her as ‘a sad, lonely spinster’ founded the dining companion search service Invite for a Bite. The website SoloDining.com is ‘dedicated to supplying you with the information and tools you need to take charge of this important life-style skill’ and advises you to purchase their $7.95 e-booklet. And then there are forever alone tables, partitioned cubicle-style cafeteria seating that are popping up on American college campuses, especially in the socially awkward milieu of engineering schools.
In fact dining alone comes with its own distinct pleasures.
You can engage in satisfying eavesdropping and people-watching or immerse yourself completely in the sensory satisfaction of the meal. You can set your own pace, you don’t have to gauge your menu selections to others, and nobody will stick a fork in your dessert. We need to take a page from the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher who, in her iconic Gourmet Magazine essay An Alphabet for Gourmets, captures the bitter and the sweet of solitary dining with A is for Dining Alone… She suggests that ‘snug misanthropic solitude is better than hit-or-miss congeniality.’ In other words, sometimes you can be your own best dining companion.