Why are so many people terrified of eating alone? For Epicurus the habit was actually sub-human, while Baudrillard histrionically claimed “nothing more contradicts the laws of man or beast”. Henry James didn’t mind it so much for himself… but “women never dine alone. When they dine alone they don’t dine.”
Well, screw them all. I love it, and I’m not alone: eight out of ten people questioned for the 2018 Waitrose Food and Drink Report agreed that solo dining is more acceptable than it was five years ago, and reservations app Bookatable reports a 38 per cent increase in requests for a table for one in just three years.
Some put this trend down to the feeling that, with a phone, you’re never entirely solitary – and for those who like to record their meal on social media, it may even be a relief not to have to pretend to listen to their partner’s conversation. But perhaps more of us are simply embracing one of life’s greatest pleasures – the quiet indulgence of treating oneself to a good meal.
Sometimes it feels like the restaurants are doing solo diners a favour by allowing them a seat – US site Eater sternly instructs singletons to “respect everyone’s time… whatever you do, don’t dilly dally”. But while it’s often assumed that businesses resent customers who take up the same space as a couple but generate half the profit, many claim to be flattered by the confidence it shows in them – New York restaurateur Keith McNally gives a glass of champagne to single female covers in particular, “to send the message that the restaurant actually likes, even encourages, women to dine alone”.
Though this paternalistic gesture may send prickles down some spines, it’s true, anecdotally, that women still seem to be less comfortable eating by themselves – the female naysayers in my highly unscientific Twitter poll explain that alone they feel “almost undeserving” of food, “too self-conscious” or simply prefer to break bread with others. (More hearteningly, someone tells me that if you walk into a restaurant as a single woman in Berlin “the female regulars turn round and say hello as if you too were a regular”.)
For every woman who feels like Steve Martin in The Lonely Guy, awkwardly spotlit at his table for one, there’s an MFK Fisher, ballsy enough to begin her 1949 essay collection An Alphabet for Gourmets with, “A is for Dining Alone… and so am I, if a choice must be made between most people I know and myself.” And while I enjoy eating in company, not least because you can order more, I agree with Jay Rayner in The Ten (Food) Commandments: downing a bottle of wine solo at home may lack a certain sophistication, but doing the same in public, in the company of impeccable côte de boeuf and a good book, “has the authentic whiff of adulthood. It says, I am a grown-up. I have taste. I like myself.”
Critic Tom Parker-Bowles rhapsodises over the prospect of two languorous hours spent in one’s own company, “with full glass and fine tucker”, while Nigel Slater calls dining alone “one of the enduring joys of my life”. As Signe Johansen, who celebrates cooking for one in her book Solo, points out, it is a chance to concentrate on the important business of food.
You can order what the hell you want, without all the horse-trading about swapping plates halfway, linger pleasurably over a coffee, then pay the bill without a calculator. Conversation’s great, but nothing beats the pleasure of dessert with just one spoon.
This article appears in the 20 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State