Last Updated on 17 June, 2020
One big reason that many people I know are hesitant to travel solo is that they don’t like eating alone. Some find being in a restaurant alone with no one to talk to very awkward, others feel like they are being judged by other people for having no friends at their table. I used to feel weird about eating alone, but after lots of solo travel and growing comfortable with my own company, it’s less of an issue for me now. Here’s a look at what I’ve learned about eating alone as a solo traveller, and some tips for anyone feeling weird about eating alone.
Why is eating alone so difficult?
Eating alone is pretty inevitable if you choose to travel solo. But it can be a really weird endeavour, even for someone like me who’s pretty introverted and used to eating my meals alone, long after my family is done eating because I worked late, or when I have no lunch dates.
Perhaps the awkwardness of eating solo for me comes from a lifetime of communal Chinese-style meals and the idea that mealtimes are about coming together and sharing, so it does get a tad lonely when I have to eat alone. Also, I am notoriously indecisive when it comes to choosing food, worse if the menu is super extensive. Having someone else make the decision on what to order relieves a lot of stress for me.
When I first started solo travelling, I definitely tried to avoid eating alone in nice restaurants at first, but as I travelled solo more, I can now sit quite comfortably in a foreign restaurant on my own and order food without it being a big deal. I still tend to avoid really crowded places when on my own, and there are days where I just don’t want the hassle or am not in the mood, so I resort to takeout, either hiding back in my room or hostel or having a random picnic if the weather is nice.
Here’s what I love and hate about solo dining while travelling alone:
Pleasure: Eat whatever and whenever you want
My priority on most trips is usually to sightsee; when it comes to food, it’s mostly a way for me to experience the local culture, but I’m not hung up about finding famous restaurants or eating my way through a city. With limited time, I sometimes put off my mealtimes and eat at really weird times, or grab food to eat on the go. I find this harder to do when I’m travelling with other people and have to take their welfare into consideration. On my own, life’s a bit more flexible.
Not having to worry about anyone else’s palate also means you can eat whatever you feel like without worrying about whether you’re depriving your friends from something they wanted to eat. I have a weird thing where I just don’t like vegetables. Like, none at all. So on my own, I can ask the kitchen to remove or put aside vegetables without feeling like I’m spoiling anybody’s dish.
Peril: Tendency to Overeat
Sometimes I go to these amazing markets and see so much choice and amazing food that I want to try, but when I’m solo, I can only eat as much as I can stomach (which is not much because I have a small appetite), and that means having to pass on trying some cool dishes because I just can’t eat anymore. I have a small appetite as wellAlso, I’m used to communal sharing so sometimes having to finish an entire dish without different tastes and foods to keep things varied can be a challenge.
And when it comes to drinking beer and wine, that’s also very much a communal activity for me. Drinking a whole bottle of wine on your own just isn’t as fun.
Pleasure: Making new friends over meals
When you’re eating solo, sometimes the waitstaff take better care of you and talk to you a little more. Or what I’ve encountered a few times in quieter restaurants is starting a conversation with people who share my table or are in the next table to me. I’m a lot more likely to be friendlier with strangers when I don’t have my own companions with me.
I wasn’t expecting to make any friends when I decided to dine along along the Douro river stretch in Porto’s Vila Nova de Gaia, but as I savoured a very non-Portuguese meal of mushroom sauce chicken, the lovely J and S who sat in the next table struck up a conversation with me and made my dinner a lot less lonesome. The strange thing is that I would meet them again completely by chance the following day at the famous Livaria Lello bookshop.
That same night after J & S finished their dinner, I ended up chatting up another merrily rowdy trio of travellers who took over their table, something I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have done if I had a dinner companion of my own. I ended up joining their table that night, which led to a lot of laughs and port consumed. We even made vague grand plans to rent a car and head out to the Douro Valley, but at some point sobriety kicked in and I figured there was no way they were gonna wake up the next day from all that drinking (they departed to go dancing while I begged off to head back to my room. I was proven right the next morning), but it was a fun night while it lasted!
Then there was the Port Wine Tour I took with the Wild Walkers which brought us to the Ramos Pinto Wine Cave, followed by a visit to Porto Cruz, capped off with a sunset boat ride along the Douro River and a little fado at the end. I had 7 glasses of port and trust me when I say, people became real fast friends after the first few glasses :) We went for a huge group dinner later that night – though I don’t have any pictures of that!
Of course the lesson from all this could also be that alcohol is a great tool in the friend-making department, but you’re still more open to making friends when solo, alcohol or not.
Peril: Less options and variety
You can always tell when the Asians are in a restaurant because at some point, plates are going to be passed around and all the food at the table gets tasted. I personally enjoy eating meals as a group because by sharing, you get to order more food and have more variety, which is hard to do as a single person with a smaller budget. Also, I don’t eat a lot to begin with, so variety is hard when I’m on my own.
But if you are a small eater like me, it could result in savings just because you order smaller portions or you just don’t eat as much to begin with, and those savings can go to other things you might deem more important than food.
Pleasure: I’m more adventurous on my own
Not that I’m unadventurous when eating with company – but one thing I like to do when I dine on my own is to get the waiter to recommend a favourite dish or house special. I am a notoriously picky eater but somehow I find myself being a little more daring when I’m on my own.
So far it’s been an interesting experiment – that’s how I ended up ordering Chanfana (a Lamb, or according to the waiter – goat stew) while in Coimbra because the menu was entirely in Portuguese and that’s what the waiter recommended. I didn’t love-love it – the soup/stew bit was kinda oily but it was a Portuguese specialty and rather unusual.
And in yet another restaurant when I returned to Lisbon, I decided on the Special of the Day Bacalhau a bras, which is their famous cod shredded and mixed with potato, also recommended by a helpful waiter.
Peril: No one to share dinner conversation
Meals are a great time to commune, and after an awesome day of travels, it’s nice to take a break and reminisce about the day over good food and drinks. Solo dining opposite an empty seat may be a nice way to collect your thoughts on your own, but I personally like being able to have a conversation with someone. I usually use the time waiting for my order to arrive to either people watch or catch up on journalling, and if all fails there is the phone and wi-fi to catch up with friends instead!
How do you feel about dining solo on your travels? Are you cool with being a table for one, or wish you didn’t have to do it?