I Ate Alone in Public to See If it Could Cure My Perpetual Loneliness
Nothing like listening to the joyful conversation of strangers as you stare lifelessly at a plate of spaghetti.
Photo compilation by Ruby Lott-Lavigna.
I hate eating alone. In fact, I’ve always hated it. As a child, I would plead with an unlucky parent or sibling to stay with me at the table while I finished my fish fingers, desperate to avoid the boredom of my own company. I don’t know whether what I feared at that age was loneliness, but my struggles with eating alone persisted into adulthood. I still hate eating alone.
Which makes sense, seeing as young people are actually more likely to be affected by loneliness than any other age group. A study conducted by the Office for National Statistics earlier this year showed that almost 10 percent of people aged between 16 and 24 were “always or often” lonely. This was the highest proportion for any age group, and the bracket I was in until a month ago. At the beginning of this year, the UK Government appointed the first ever minister for loneliness, inspired by a 2017 campaign started by the late MP Jo Cox. Loneliness is now a nationwide problem.
Loneliness can creep up on you at any time, but dining alone certainly heightens the risk. Eating is something we’re socialised from a young age to do together, whether it’s sitting down for weeknight dinner with your family, a celebration like Christmas or Eid al-Fitr, or just catching up with a mate over lunch. Eating alone is not only discouraged, it’s considered damaging for young children—I mean, it can even help you avoid alcohol, cigarette, and drug abuse in later life. (Thanks, Mum, Dad, for all those dinners I ate on my own as a kid).
Eating alone isn't considered great for adults either; depicted in popular culture as the pastime of sad, desperate people. Films and television rarely show someone dining solo out of choice—think Renée Zellweger as Bridget Jones funnelling a Tesco ready meal-for-one into her mouth or Bill Murray as Bob Harris having a midlife crisis in a Japanese restaurant. Eating alone is a manifestation of loneliness, difficulty, or both.
It’s also, from my own experience, boring and isolating. All the concerns I’ve pushed to the back of my mind (Will my housemate take the good frying pan when she moves out? Can I ever make myself like raw tomatoes? Am I fundamentally unlovable?) suddenly reveal themselves, ready to be confronted. A weight builds in my chest as I look around for some sort of outside stimulus. I get tired and restless. I am both bored by my own thoughts and stressed out by them.
But does eating alone have to be such an ordeal? Apparently, there are people who will voluntarily choose to dine out alone in public. People who can extract all possible enjoyment from their wild mushroom tagliatelle by engaging with their inner narrative for, like, a whole hour. Indeed, a survey in 2015 found that 87 percent of British diners saw no problem with eating out alone. Freaks.
A survey in 2015 found that 87 percent of British diners saw no problem with eating out alone. Freaks.
It’s about time I learned to suffer through my own thoughts long enough to finish a pizza, so I set out to eat alone and confront my fear. I have some initial reservations: dealing with my own internal musings, no one to share oversized starters with, as well as the physical riddle of trying to both eat and read a book at the same time. (Book in one hand, fork in the other? Book under forearm, knife and fork in each hand?) But hey, I’m sure if I move to a new city or everyone I know and love dies, I’ll be glad I worked out how to eat alone! So glad!!
First, I turn to the internet for help. Numerous people are willing to admit their penchant for the bizarre habit of dining out alone and offer advice on how to enjoy the experience. Food writer Rida Bilgrami explains that her reasons for choosing to eat alone are down to choice, rather than necessity: “My taste in food is more experimental than a lot of my friends, and too much conversation over a meal distracts me from enjoying the dining experience.” She recommends not feeling self-conscious (fine), dining somewhere with a bar or shared tables (OK), and bringing a book (see above).
With Bilgram's advice in mind, I arrange a meal at Fayre Share in East London, a restaurant that, if you hadn’t already figured out from the name, centres on eating with friends. It is exactly the opposite of what the internet recommended. According to its website, eating with others is “such an important part of life,” so I anticipate the feeling of isolation and suffering to be relatively high. Overall, Fayre Share sounds ideal for both confronting my fear of being alone and eating a single-person portion of shepherd's pie (logistically absurd).
I head to the restaurant on a Wednesday lunchtime, and already feel out-of-place cycling somewhere in the middle of a workday. When I arrive, there are two other tables occupied by what can only be described as the Classic Weekday Lunch Demographic: a new mother (feat. baby) and her friend, and a couple in their 60s. They shall be my companions for this journey today.
I make a rule not to look at my phone for the whole meal. This is broken in about eight minutes. When it comes to ordering, I am thrown off by the brunch menu, panic, and order a Bloody Mary, a starter, and avocado on toast (?). On a Wednesday, in the middle of a workday. I am alone. There are no rules here.
I’m quite bored, but my table is outside which is pleasant. At one point, I have a four-minute standoff with a wasp. “Just having a standoff with a wasp,” I laugh, as I finally catch eyes with the woman in the couple, desperate for human contact. I listen to the new mother talk about percentile weights of babies. I pull out a magazine on women and weed I’ve meaning to read for ages, and get through exactly one article.
I inhale my anachronistic avocado on toast, make a quick exit, and cycle back to the office. Eating alone this time felt perfunctory: I knew I had something do to, somewhere to get back to, so I completed the task ahead and left. I assume that this isn’t the way people normally enjoy their time eating out alone, so decide to test myself further. I may have managed a gentle mid-week lunch, but I think it’s time to take my struggle to the next level.
It’s supper time.
For dinner, I choose a bustling, Central London restaurant that’s always full of people: Pastaio, on Carnaby Street, a cool-yet-conceptually-unchallenging fresh pasta spot. At 7.15 PM when I arrive, the place is entirely booked out, packed with women who look exactly like me (and their friends, who look exactly like me) talking loudly over Nocellara olives. The waiter seats me at a window that faces onto the street, with my back to the restaurant. Normally, this would be an ideal place for a solo diner. However, because it is summer, the retractable windows are pulled right back, meaning I am literally sitting at a table facing out onto one of the busiest streets in London, like a lonely zoo animal. I am a lonely zoo animal.
This time, I don’t look at my phone once. I pull out the magazine that I barely got through before and read almost every article as I eat my (definitely two-person portion) of burrata and sourdough. Don’t fill up on the bread, Ruby, I think. But there is no one to share it with. No one to stop me. I eat it all. I wish I could message my friends about something I read in the magazine, but I resist.
By the time my cacio e pepe arrives, I have finished the magazine. Due to my positioning as a solo diner presented to the world for all to judge, I can’t hear many conversations except for one incredibly shrill, put-out rich woman, complaining about the stress of buying a house in Hampstead. At one point she says: “He had the best teeth I’d ever seen.” A lady sitting outside with a man and a glass of red wine gets up and starts having a tearful conversation on the phone to my left. I watch. I can’t stop worrying about the packing I need to do for the festival I’m going to this weekend. The woman stops crying and sits back down with her largely unconcerned-looking male companion.
Hours pass (I think?). I’m greedy, so the dinner continues until dessert even though I’m ready to leave (it’s only been an hour and 15 minutes). During the dessert course, I manage to cut the shortbread base of the lemon tart so that it flies onto my lap not once, but twice. Haha! I have no one to tell this to. As I leave, the manager comes to talk to me, and I shout every thought I had over the course of the meal at him, desperate to talk to someone, anyone.
The manager tells me that he, in fact, loves eating alone, and often goes travelling without a companion. “What’s the longest you’ve gone without properly speaking to another human?” I ask, expecting the answer to be around a week and a half. He tells me that he spent a month in India without talking to another English-language speaker. Which sounds like my own personal hell.
How does he do it? He looks confused.
“I guess you just daydream.”
Cycling home after the meal, I feel envious of the people who have the ability to be totally self-sufficient, totally enamoured with their own company. Being alone for me is like running—quite horrible at first, but if you can break through the initial barrier then it almost becomes tolerable, and afterwards, you might feel great. Or you might feel shit. I don’t know if forcing myself to stare forlornly onto Central London with a lemon tart is the way to cure loneliness, but I feel this might just be something I have to manage, rather than fix.
I think back to those dinners as a child, eating alone, running my nails through the crevices of a wooden table and scraping off the wax. I feel almost exactly the same as I did back then, infantilised by my loneliness.
I blame my parents.