by Kady Matsuzaki
Photograph courtesy of Noor Nassar
There is one at every restaurant: a table for two, but only one water glass filled. A single diner sits, quietly cutting into their meal. Their isolation seems like something out of an Edward Hopper painting—eerie, foreign and uncomfortable to the viewer.
Whenever we see people sitting alone in a restaurant, our first instinct is to pity them. “Why are they by themselves,” we ask. “Isn’t it kind of sad to be surrounded by couples and families, yet have no one across the table from you?”
This past summer, that lone person was me.
For years, I told myself that I would never eat out by myself; people would judge me, and it would be boring and antisocial. But then I found myself alone in New York City, apartment-sitting for relatives, all of my friends from school happily ensconced at home or in Boston and all of my co-workers commuting to the suburbs each night. I was living in one of the greatest food cities in the world, and it killed me to think that I was wasting my time because of some insecurity.
I started out slow—I went to cafés first. Airy, bright spaces serving breakfast and lunch all day. I chose counter or window seats, where I could sit by myself and not have to face the dreaded empty chair. Lingering over coffee in a café is acceptable, so I distracted myself from isolation-awareness by reading.
It was pleasant; I could be absorbed in my book without having to deal with any interruptions or idle conversation. The mornings slipped away. I finished novels I had intended to start for months. I became comfortable with eating alone, as long as I had a book in front of me.
But then I upped the ante: dinner alone.
Dinner, so often held in low-lit rooms or on patios illuminated by candlelight. Dinner, whose ambiance and vibe—more formal than lunch or breakfast, more likely to be full service and sit-down—make reading throughout the meal look even more odd than eating by oneself.
I made the decision to eat dinner alone spur-of-the-moment. I gave myself no time to think it over, no time to second-guess or back out. I was walking through the West Village, and I spotted The Butcher’s Daughter. I had been there for breakfast before, but a co-worker had given rave reviews for their raw cashew ricotta with pesto zucchini noodles. I fought off the urge to take the dish to-go. It was dinnertime on a beautiful summer night; I was starving and I was going in.
It was past sunset, so the open-air restaurant was dim; candles flickered on every table and reading would be impossible. There were several four and two-person parties already seated. Their laughter and clinking glasses echoed in my ears as I entered and said, “table for one please.”
I nervously played with my phone, checked Instagram and Snapchat and busily perused the menu, even though I already knew what I was ordering; anything to avoid looking at the empty chair opposite me. I tried to push away my paranoid thoughts: “the waiter is judging you,” and “those laughing people? They’re laughing at you.”
But then something unexpected happened. The longer I sat there, the less those thoughts popped up. I put away my phone. I lost myself in people-watching and, when my food arrived, the meal. It was delicious—the zucchini noodles perfectly cooked and coated in vibrant pesto and the cashew ricotta almost indistinguishable from real cheese.
As I walked out of the restaurant, I realized that I had actually enjoyed myself. Despite my initial fears, having dinner alone had turned out to be the “me time” that I desperately needed after a long work week. There was no pressure to keep a conversation going, no worries about who would be paying the check. I just got to focus on me and a really good plate of pesto zoodles.
Eating out alone does not have to be something to fear. The thought that people will assume something is wrong with you because you are eating by yourself is all in your head. I realized that wait staff are often too busy to care or judge, and other parties are too absorbed in each other’s company to notice.
Flying solo allows you to be mindful and fully present. The subtle smokiness that charred peppers bring to a salsa would probably be lost on your taste buds if you were simultaneously ranting about your ex’s new girlfriend and scooping dip into your mouth.
I am not saying that I would choose eating by myself over eating with others. I still see going out to eat as a social activity that I enjoy doing with friends and family. Dining alone simply presents the opportunity to fully experience your food.