“Still just one?” asked the hostess at two-star Michelin, Jungsik in Tribeca. While her kind, breezy tone remained the same, she was no longer asking my name. She was questioning whether I would “still” be dining alone. Her intention was to confirm my party size, but her phrasing was not in the usual style, which assumes the reservation to be correct: “Insert Name Here: Table for Two.” Instead, she posed a statement in the form of a question, one applicable only to solo diners, asked only because of pervasive negative beliefs about dining alone in American society.
While I see a table for one as a place for healing and mindfulness, I understand the negative beliefs about dining alone; after all, I once held them. I grew up watching shows and reading stories where eating alone was a literary device for conveying loneliness. I believed the narrative that solo dining was a last resort to be avoided at all costs, and solo diners were sad, lonely rejects waiting for a kind person to come along and offer inclusion at the popular table. The words the hostess chose tell the same story: “still” extends opportunity for improvement, while “just” implies insufficiency, casting “one” as the loneliest number.
Despite the invisible, internal nature of loneliness, and how indiscriminately loneliness operates, lonely people are often depicted with set physical characteristics—none of which I embody. I stood before the hostess: energetic, twenty-seven years old with (dyed) blond hair, an athletic build, and a trendy outfit. I did not feel lonely that night, but that did not matter. What drove the hostess to question my solo status was that I did not “look” lonely.
To her unconscious mind, I presented a conflict between stereotypes and reality: a conflict that needed solving. Hidden too deeply within her question (for even her to realize) was an invitation to conform to expectations about what kind of person dines alone. I knew exactly how to reply. With a barren belly and a beaming smile, I looked into her eyes and said, “Yes, still just one.”
“Have you ever thought about going out to eat alone?” asked my therapist, Todd, two years prior, at one of our final sessions. At the time, I lived with my parents who still lived by their old-school, old-Brooklyn, fish-on-Friday, sign-of-the-cross, spaghetti-and-meatball, Italian-American upbringing, where life was simpler and queers did not exist. I felt invisible and simple family dinners made me frustrated and depressed. Todd suggested that conscientiously going out to eat by myself could be formative, calming, and therapeutic—even healing. As a young, bitchy gay (and a New Yorker at that), I knew everything, and I begged to differ.
When I was eleven, my younger sister pointed toward an old man eating alone at a food court table in the mall. “That’s so sad to watch,” she said. My mother told her to quiet down and stop staring. I looked and saw him slowly eating his burger, occasionally glancing down at a newspaper, but mainly just being alone. “Yeah, I feel bad for him,” I agreed. We lived by the belief that the saddest sight was someone eating alone, revisiting the subject whenever we saw someone at a table for one.
I spent my teenage years relatively alone. Since I knew everything at the time, I knew that my mental health struggles were everyone else’s fault, making me as pleasant as a shot of unflavored Rubinoff. I ate away at my depression but, albeit, only literally: County Fair microwaveable corndogs, Entenmann’s holiday Pop-Ems, and frozen hunks of Costco cake. Che degustazione!
In college, I was unreasonably hungry and reasonably lonely, eating most meals alone in my dorm. As a neurotic germaphobe sharing a lavatory with sixty college dudes, I hard-passed on the storied benjo meshi. Instead, I flew to the dining hall twice daily, filled my cardboard tray to the brim, and devoured the savory, sweet (previously frozen) contents in front of my laptop. As badly as I felt, privately eating alone satisfied the primary goal of my behemoth ego: avoiding guilt and shame. Did I mention my Catholic upbringing?
The negative stigmas against solo dining were easy to believe, as my life experiences validated what society already told me: eating alone meant being lonely. The pervasive hold of the negative stigmas made me sad for the man in the food court and, later, shamed me into hiding my solitary meals in college. Could a bit of intentionality (i.e., picking a night, dressing up, and going out) really transform what I saw as a sad negative into a healing positive? Impossible.
Had I ever thought about going out to eat alone? Turns out, I’d thought about that question all my life: eating alone was sad and embarrassing.
You always remember your first. I love travel. When I have the chance, I savor (almost) every moment of the experience. I say “almost” because I am absolutely terrified of flying. That said, my friend Paula lives in Australia, and in 2019 I decided to visit her in Sydney. For the twenty hours in flight, I spent my time clutching the armrests for dear life, desperately negotiating with the gods and consuming my weight in Valium.
On one of the spring evenings I spent in the port city of gorgeous cliffs and endless beaches, Paula was studying—and I was hungry. The following factors pushed my stubborn, fearful, isolating self to try a proper dinner at a proper restaurant, properly alone: I was on vacation, I needed to eat and wanted to explore, I was young and lazy and a bad cook, and Paula is a vegan and I am not. I fired up Google and searched for “best restaurants to dine alone in Sydney.” I chose Ester, a “World’s 50 Best” establishment with a modestly priced tasting menu and reviews noting favorable bar-side experiences.
I called, I reserved…and I panicked: the tasting would take over two hours. What the heck was I going to do alone at a restaurant for two hours? And where did I put that Valium? Of course I knew I could kill plenty of minutes on my phone. I also pulled together a couple of backups: a pen and notebook for writing, and Call Me By Your Name for reading. I dressed for success, packed my small tote, and hopped into a cab.
When the door to Ester opened, an enveloping current of warm air rushed to comfort my chilled flesh. The warmth was more than the product of a heater. The warmth was alive, the kind found in full houses on winter holidays, recreated at Ester by chefs looming over steaming stoves and ovens, scenting breezes that flowed into the golden hues of the dining room, where servers glided around in black and patrons buzzed in every seat.
The greeter guided me a few steps upward toward the bar and gave me a choice of two empty stools. I chose the seat closest to the kitchen and deepest into the restaurant, tucked away from eyes I feared would judge my solitude. The bartender smiled and approached, and my accent sparked questions about wheres, whys, hows, and whens. I mentioned liking orange wine and he suggested an obscure menu option that required a quick jaunt to the cellar: Radikon Oslavje from 2006. A discussion ensued about the (deceased) owner of the (closed) vineyard from which the (ever fewer) remaining bottles of this wine came. The first course arrived: bread and butter. The server retreated, the bartender sought thirstier shores, and the moment finally arrived—the moment I had been raised to fear. I was alone in public. Eating.
Bread and butter are simplistic, age-old staples, the flesh and bone of meals, but I can still taste the honeyed sweetness of wheat beneath the herbal body of spiced butter, and feel the crust graze upon my raw, inner cheek with the gentle strength of dried grass. The surprise I experienced from bread and butter, elevated to near perfection, rendered that humble dish the only one I distinctly remember. I turned toward a small passthrough from which my plate came, peered between the shelf on which other plates sat, and lost myself, mesmerized by chefs and their delicate dance: shoulders swaying to extending arms, soft shoes making smooth turns, unifying with sleepy stirs, separating by radiant tosses.
As familiar faces returned with plates and refills, I heard my voice beginning conversations. I did not need the phone, the book, the pen and paper: distractions I planned, packed, and forgot about. I fearlessly enjoyed what society taught me to fear: eating alone in public. I felt comfortable, present, and alive. I was dining alone, and that aloneness made me dine mindfully. I found that a meal could be a full experience, wholly and enough, not a sideshow, not a part of something else.
With the final plate cleared, the last drop consumed, I went to deliver gratitude and compliments to the kitchen, and then paused alongside the bar for parting words with bartenders and servers. Into sharp night breezes, I left Ester, but the dense, living heat of the restaurant continued warming me from within. I was at ease with myself, at ease with myself in the world. Though the hour was late, I was awake. For the first time in a long time, I was alive.
Practice makes progress. In the two years since that night at Ester, solo dining developed from a novel pleasure into a weekly ritual. In that time, I dropped talk therapy, but found comfort and value in the mindfulness achieved through restaurant therapy.
In the hours spent alone at a restaurant, the demands and challenges of daily life slip beyond the horizon. The feeling that people need something from me, that I should be doing something, that I am not doing enough: those feelings have no room to exist. All that can exist is what exists in the dining room. There is a peace and positivity in all my favorite restaurants, places like Osteria Danny in Saratoga Springs, where slow food and farm to table coalesce in you-wish-you-had-this-at-home-style Italian cooking. When I walk through the door into a hug from Patti (Danny’s wife) and take my place at the bar, where Annie holds a court of mixology and conversation, I belong: I have come home. My entire world is put at ease. I am human again.
By giving myself time to be fully human and fully present at a meal, removing modern distractions like technology and the social obligations of dining with someone else, I make the space to reconnect my mind and body through an experience both parts can share together: taste. In a single taste, the body is stimulated while the mind is activated, and vice versa. The slower I eat, the longer I chew, the more I allow myself to savor, the greater this mind-body singularity is emphasized.
When I walk out the door at the end of the night, I feel as though I have undergone a cleanse, massage, and realignment. As broken as I may feel when I enter, I leave feeling healed. The feeling of healing is addictive, especially when the healing ends with Danny’s homemade, fluffy, king-sized pillow of creamy, crispy—light as the cloud that carries me off into the night—coconut cream pie.
Enough about me. Let’s talk about you. The distracting nature of modern life is hard to escape. The ability to have constant access to social media and communication, both professional and personal, makes an imbalanced life impossibly easy. We could all use a time-out—a time when time is irrelevant—and we would be mentally healthier for giving ourselves that deserved space.
For we who already find the dining experience enriching, solo dining is the ultimate enhancement: an opportunity to devote ourselves entirely to mindfully savoring the present. Between courses, to which we can give our undivided attention, we can engage with our love of food in other ways, such as reading, writing, and chatting with staff. The basic rules are simple: dress with intention, ask to space courses, eat each course slowly, and no technology. Since not all restaurants are created equal (or well, for that matter), try new ones and revisit tested favorites.
Whether you live to eat or eat to live, I want you to treat yourself to time alone with yourself to help you appreciate yourself—and, maybe, heal yourself a bit too.