Reasons to schedule solo restaurant meals into your recovery, or your life.
When did you last eat out alone?
Until last month, for me the answer would have been “I have no idea—not for years, maybe never.” That’s if you mean doing it properly: going into a restaurant on your own, ordering an entire multicourse meal, and eating it alone.
Done properly, eating out alone ticks a bunch of big anti-anorexic boxes: Eating unfamiliar foods; eating foods prepared by other people; likely eating more than usual; eating around other people; doing nothing else whilst eating; spending “unnecessary” money on food; spending “unnecessary” money on yourself.
This autumn, the perfect chance for a crash course in solo dining came up. The US travel ban meant I hadn’t been able to see my partner (who used to live in Pasadena, now New York) in person for a year, and although the internet was constantly full of mutterings about the ban being relaxed, it kept not actually happening (it finally did last week). In the end I decided it was worth doing the “standard” workaround: Spend 14 days in a non-banned country and enter the States from there. Mexico seemed like a good bet, and I spent ages on TripAdvisor et al. trying to choose a hotel.
All-inclusive seemed a nicely low-hassle way to do things, and I ended up splashing out on 15 nights at a swanky beach resort south of Cancun. Unless you want to go wild on room service, doing all-inclusive means eating a lot in restaurants, and unless you’re keen on making fast friends, doing all-inclusive on your own means eating a lot in restaurants on your own.
I was interested in how this would go. I had some predictions, most of them not particularly optimistic, e.g.:
1. Assuming hardly anyone else will be on their own, I’ll feel self-conscious or even embarrassed about it.
2. It’ll feel weird/difficult to not be doing anything else while I’m eating—but I also don’t want to be reading a book or on my phone, especially in the evening.
3. It’ll feel like a waste of time to do this several times a day; it’ll be boring.
4. It’ll get easier with practice.
If this hadn’t been all-inclusive, the final prediction would have been:
5. This will feel like a colossal overindulgence and waste of money.
The last prediction was actually one of my reasons for choosing this format: I wanted to give myself a strong incentive to do all the nice things without money being an issue.
As it turned out, my first three pessimistic predictions were miles off. The fourth was, as usual, spot on.
I arrived mid-evening (after a 16-hour journey plus 6 hours of jet lag) so having dinner straightaway made sense to kickstart the timezone adjustment. I’d had the sense in advance that it would be important to begin well: to make doing this restaurant thing the norm from the outset. I chose from the six or seven resort restaurants at random, kept it to one course (plus bread and wine), and was tired enough that my main feeling was gratitude for the wine and the simplicity of being brought things that tasted nice. I was soon done and off to bed.
The next morning, the outdoor place for breakfast was a delight—and remained that way for all my 14 mornings. It was lovely to sit down and be brought limitless decaf refills, feel the Caribbean warmth, and admire the blue skies beyond the covered terrace. That first morning I was a bit zonked from the travel and the heat and humidity, and simply from being in a different country after all this time stuck in Britain, and my huevos rancheros went down extremely well.
As the days and meals passed, I learnt the breakfast menu off by heart, stopped bothering with other restaurants because this was the only one with proper outdoor seating, and got friendly with the morning and the evening waiters. At breakfast I sometimes read the New York Times morning briefing or similar on my phone, or brought a magazine with me. At dinner I rarely used my phone (occasionally for a few WhatsApp messages or something—or to take these photos!) and sometimes took my notebook to scribble in.
At lunch I used the sandwich bar for panini, wraps, etc., and the novelty of getting a latte and a cake from the café and handing over no money never got old. I saw I think a total of two other people eating on their own—it was a very couply place, and mostly a bit older than me—but I never once felt remotely uncomfortable about it. Indeed, the luxury of eating this way is a big part of what made the trip a bright serene oasis in my year, in the living and the remembering.
I thoroughly recommend dining out alone as a way to accelerate your recovery or just to acquire the skill of taking pleasure in something you might otherwise never have realized you could. The more conflicted you feel about trying it, the more good it may do you. To make the case and give my top tips, here’s what I learnt from my two weeks of solo eating out:
1. Using your phone defeats the entire purpose of practising being alone. I therefore recommend a strict no-phone rule to begin with. The rule can be relaxed once phone-free has become a comfortable default. (See this post for more on why phone-free time matters so much in recovery.)
2. Doing nothing else while eating needn’t be a rule, in recovery or the rest of life, but with encouragement it can become a nice default. (I’m now deliberately not getting something to read or listen to while eating when alone at home. It feels nice for the baseline to be no accompaniment.)
3. It is possible to be gently aware of your surroundings and other people without feeling like (or giving the impression that) you’re either staring at people or ignoring them. I shared some smiles and other nice little acknowledging kind of interactions with people (and once joined a couple for tequilas at their table), but on the whole just got on with my thing as they did theirs.
4. The typical lack of awareness of one’s surroundings when in a group or (especially) a couple is very noticeable when you’re observing from the outside. (No real point to this other than: Being alone really does enhance a certain kind of mindful embodied presence.)
5. Time passes. An evening meal, for example, has lovely natural rhythms: water, wine, ordering, bread and butter, starter, main, maybe pudding. These rhythms take over; they look after you. Curated mealtime structures become part of the rhythms of a day that is begun and ended and punctuated with them.
6. If you don’t do anything else with this time, it can become time for experiencing and for thinking that would not have existed otherwise. I had some interesting and important thoughts whilst sitting and sipping and taking mouthfuls of things. None of us is bored nearly enough these days, and new thoughts tend to come only when we’re a bit bored, i.e. where there’s not yet another thing keeping us occupied. A mealtime setting (eating and drinking to be doing, but nothing else) is a nice way to create a state that’s “boring” enough to be fertile but not so much so that we resent and curtail it.
7. Having a table at the edge of the room, looking inwards, helps. (Once I sat in the middle and had a slightly uncomfortable feeling of not knowing what was going on behind me. I’m sure this would improve with practice too.)
8. Waiters being lovely helps.
9. Alcohol helps 🙂
10. Taking the money out of it (except tips, sadly) helps.
11. Everything gets easier with repetition. And for me at least, this proved to be one of the many things that get ultra-easy with very few repetitions.
12. Morning scrambled eggs are improved by the addition of black bean sauce.
13. Nightcap sambuca is not improved by the addition of coffee beans.
If you give this a go, I strongly recommend doing it more than once (if not 28 times) before drawing your conclusions.
My conclusions are: Eating out alone is a liberated luxury, and it’s lovely to be able to experience it as such. Trying it out could be a great way to test the strength of your recovery, and to strengthen it further.
Doing this experiment has also given me an idea I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Editing this post, it just occurred to me that there could be no more fitting way to remember my father on the tenth anniversary of his death than to eat rare rib-eye and béarnaise and fries and drink claret at the place where I did so with him back in 2008, a few months into my recovery. Being alone feels right for this, because I won’t be.