Why Does Dining Alone Still Freak People Out?

Solo dining is a strangely divisive topic. Sometimes when I go into certain restaurants and ask for a “spot for one”, I get a bit of awkward tension which is honestly surprising in 2021.

Historically, solo dining has been frowned upon socially. It’s almost like going out to a restaurant or bar is a performance, where you’re your most polished self and that self must have fabulous friends

Being “alone” isn’t the desired quality in mainstream society. I feel like this starts from the very beginning of our lives; everyone wants to be part of a group of friends at every age of their life and no one wants to be the outsider. 

But I’ve reached a stage in my life where I need to question what is actually ‘wrong’ with being an outsider. I actually feel the most myself when I’m alone. I really like socialising, I love interacting with people and I’m impartial to a bit of flirty banter. But even in new social situations, I feel at my most confident when I venture out alone. 

This translates to dining experiences. There’s nothing I love more than going into a restaurant, sitting up at the bar, having a drink and something delicious to eat and soaking in the atmosphere. 

During my first week in Melbourne, I remember I’d started a new job, just moved into a new house with two strangers and I felt really exhausted and overwhelmed. I’d just finished a difficult day at work and decided to go for a walk around the city. I ended up at Embla (if you haven’t been, you must go), sitting at the bar in my work uniform, with a glass of wine and some carpaccio. I remember letting out a big breath and thinking “I’ve arrived”. 

Gerald’s Bar, Melbourne. Photo: provided.

I think there’s something about restaurants that make me feel safe and calm, like I’m in someone else’s house. I can let go and allow myself to be taken care of. There is always someone to talk to if you’re in the mood for banter. You can eat, drink, and there’s usually amazing music and fantastic smells… it just tickles every sense.

I spent so much of my own hospitality wage on eating and drinking in fabulous places, and I don’t regret a cent. 

So then, it always confuses me when people frown at me for dining alone and clearly enjoying it. It might be an older couple in the restaurant staring me down, or one of the staff continuously asking if I’m waiting for someone, or even my friends, not understanding why I would’ve wanted to be out on my own. 

I always say that the best things happen when you’re on your own. Take being in a new country. 

In Italy I made some of my most amazing memories by going out to random bars in Florence, getting to know bartenders and restaurant owners that would take me out to salsa clubs and late-night parties once they’d clocked off for the night. Not only did they give me the most incredible dining experience and local adventures, but they’d also give me tips for things for me to do, people to visit and specialties to try. If you’re ever in a new place and you want to get to know the locals, go to your nearest bar and order a dealer’s choice. 

One of our Thrillist writers, Tash, feels the same way. As a food writer, dining alone is an integral part of work.

“The people-watching is my favourite part,” she tells me. 

“Dining with someone means they always want to chat, which is nice, but I really love dining in peace and quiet because I get to observe so much more. 

“It really helps with work. Most of my stories come out of dining alone, because if you bring someone, it can be hard to focus and really take it all in.”

Before working at Thrillist, Tash spent her time working as a freelance journalist, living in New York and also travelling all over the world, trying culinary delights and putting her experiences into words. 

She spent her 22nd birthday in Antigua on a week-long trip for work. She was staying in a gorgeous resort full of rich people (tough gig, huh?), and almost everyone was in a couple. There were young women with older men, young hot, rich couples, older couples… the kind of people that really just exist inside their own bubble. 

Tash was dining at the resort restaurants and bars, so she could write some pieces on their food and booze offerings and she says almost every night, people would come up to her and ask “Sweetie, are you okay?”. 

“It’s strange because everyone’s scared of dining alone, of being alone in general I guess. But what you actually get from solo dining is this real sense of security. 

“Most of the staff know you’re there alone and so make an effort to look out for you, more than they would the average customer. You get to build a relationship with them and you can actually make amazing friends and have the most amazing experiences,” she says. 

I’ve had a really similar experience to Tash. We both work as food writers and we’ve also both worked in hospitality, which definitely gives us extra confidence when it comes to solo dining. But I think what it actually stems from is this curiosity and hunger for experiences and to immerse yourself in new cultures and open yourself up to adventure.

So much about society has changed in the last decade. Women have a newfound strength in being independent, and there’s been a huge restructure in terms of traditional relationships. Women no longer need to have a man by their side or be only valued for their ability to accessorise a marriage with femininity. Strong, independent and kick-ass women are being celebrated and with that, we all have less fear attached to being seen alone. 

Up at the bar at Gerald’s Bar. Photo: @geraldsbarmelbourne

There has also been a huge change in the hospitality industry. Never before have we had so many different styles of venues to choose from, especially in Australia. Just to think that under a decade ago, most of Australia’s best cocktail bars were in hotels is insane, given that in 2021, we have so many incredible bars to choose from at our doorstep. With the emergence of more venues came a growing interest in food, booze and dining out and with that, a celebration of experimental and immersive dining experiences. 

In simple terms, we’re less set in our ways. Sure, there are still people that love going to the same restaurant, drinking the same bottle of Shiraz and being served by the same waiter — and that’s okay — but younger generations are becoming increasingly more willing to step outside their comfort zone and try new things more often. 

One of the biggest changes in regards to solo dining in Australia is the emergence of the bar table. We have an incredibly large European influence here in Australia, which is visible through our growing hospitality offerings. Over the years, the European style has become more refined, and we find ourselves with some incredible restaurants that offer bar dining — sitting up at the bar for your meal — which encourages a solo dining experience. 

My family comes from Italy, where this is a very common way to eat. Especially in the bigger cities, where the houses are tiny apartments. Plus, because it’s actually cheaper to eat out, most people won’t eat a single meal at home. It’s a pop in-and-out, have a spritz and a bowl of pasta type deal, sitting or standing at a bar. 

This style of dining has become increasingly popular in Australia. It’s perfect for a date, with one other friend or alone. One venue that does it seamlessly is Gerald’s Bar

Gerald & Mario of Gerald’s Bar. Photo: provided.

Gerald’s Bar has been in Melbourne for 14 years and also has a sister venue in San Sebastian in Spain. Its Melbourne venue is situated on leafy Rathdowne Street in Carlton North and it’s really a safe space for any diner, with incredible food, drinks, atmosphere, staff and one of my favourite places to dine alone.

And I’m not the only one. 

“We’re definitely a 90% regulars venue and so many of them frequently dine alone,” says Alice Diffey, the assistant manager at Gerald’s Bar.

“It’s all about respecting the experience that our guests want to have, not the experience you want to give.”

“That’s how I like to think about it anyway. They’re coming into our house and we want to make them feel comfortable and look out for them in the best way that we can.”

When it comes to solo dining, Alice reckons that the stigma is changing as people are becoming more interested in hospitality venues, the food, the service and have that desire to experience it for themselves. 

“The way we eat has changed so much,” she says.

“It’s become way more common to eat small plates and tapas-like food, than having a full main course to yourself. Most people would prefer six small plates to one big main. 

“This style of dining is more relaxed, which makes people feel more comfortable about dining alone, as well as giving them the opportunity to try more than one thing on the menu.”

Alice, myself and another staff member from Gerald’s, Nevin Blaythorne-Rae, caught up last week for a wine over FaceTime. It was partly to talk about this article, but mostly because I missed their beautiful smiling faces and impeccable banter. 

“We’re the guardians of the vibe,” Nevin said, of his role as a staff member at Gerald’s. 

“Especially when it comes to a female guest on their own. It’s kind of our duty to preserve the space, make sure it’s a safe place and direct anything else out. I think when it comes to solo dining, it’s all about people feeling comfortable, and that’s what Gerald’s is.

“Sitting up at the bar seats definitely feels more casual, but also there’s always someone to talk to behind the bar, which tailors the experience a bit.”

Guardian of the vibe, Nevin. Photo: provided.

We all agreed that one of our favourite things to do is to restaurant/bar hop, popping into different venues for a drink and a snack and catching up with people behind the bar as well as keeping up with what people are serving. 

It’s an amazing way to spend a day off with yourself and to experience your city or area. 

We’re lucky that Melbourne is full of venues that have that relaxed Euro-style bar service, where you can pop in spontaneously and have an incredible time. 

As I said at the start of this article, there is still a bit of negativity lingering around the stigma of dining alone that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense given how far we’ve come in both society and in hospitality. There are definitely still traditional people and venues that believe in the design of never being alone and make it tough to solo dine, but I think really comes down to feeling comfortable on your own within yourself, first. 

If you’re inexperienced in dining alone and want to try it, you definitely should. I recommend starting small: go to a little neighbourhood bar or restaurant and sit at the bar with a book. Once you feel comfortable in that space, maybe go for a walk around the neighbourhood, before you venture into the city, at bigger and busier venues. 

But trust me, there’s nothing more empowering than dining alone. You meet amazing people, try new and delicious things and have a newfound appreciation for people watching.

And since lockdown has made us all experts at being alone, there’s no time like now to get outside your comfort zone and book a spot for one.

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