This Is When I Finally Learned to Enjoy Dining by Myself

Solo dining can seem intimidating, but it's actually an empowering experience.

eating dining solo aloneCourtesy Madeline Wahl

On a crisp evening in April 2018, I sat at a candlelit table and ordered dinner and a glass of red wine for a party of one at a restaurant with outdoor seating in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. I was on a solo trip to experience the tulip season among other western European cities in spring. On one of my last nights before flying back to the United States, I had wanted to go out for dinner to celebrate the trip. Instead of staying inside wishing I had someone to dine with, I took myself out to enjoy my own company and enjoy the ambiance of dining along one of the famed Amsterdam canals.

How to find the confidence to do things alone

The first solo trip I went on was to Iceland in December 2015. I was alone in a new country where I didn’t speak the language, didn’t know anyone (yet still managed to run into a sorority sister by coincidence), and didn’t even know the Icelandic book-exchange tradition called “Jolabokaflod” or the “Christmas/Yule Book Flood.” On my first night in Reykjavik, I met three other solo travellers from the United States and from then on we continued our journey together.  Over time, I branched out of my comfort zone and explored new places and activities. I tried more adventurous things solo. I went to concerts, watched movies, and finally dined in restaurants alone. First in New York City, and then in different cities and countries around the world.

At first, dining alone can be intimidating

Dining alone is an inevitable part of the solo travel experience. In the beginning of my solo travels, I was overwhelmed with the thought of what other people would think of me, the woman sitting at a table alone with “no friends” and “no one to talk to.” When I first started dining alone in new cities, I was mortified at telling the hostess I was by myself. It’s one thing to dine alone in your own city, and another matter entirely when trying to order a meal in a place where I didn’t speak the language and wasn’t too familiar with the customs. (Read up on these etiquette rules about tipping.)

eating dining solo aloneCourtesy Madeline Wahl

But dining alone doesn’t need to be embarrassing

I used to be embarrassed to sit at a table alone. I’d watch as hosts removed glasses and plate settings from the table. Instead of taking up my own space, I’d wonder which couple or family couldn’t be seated. I’d scroll through my phone, look through the menu half a dozen times, write in my journal, and read a book to avoid all the negative thoughts I’d had. However, as I worked through the discomfort and got to the root of the issue, I realized I was more concerned with what other people thought than what I thought of myself. In acknowledging these fears, what used to terrify me began to fade away. If I liked dining with other people, why couldn’t the same be true in dining in my own company?

Sometimes, I meet new people when dining alone

On my cross-country road trip over the summer, I went to a restaurant a friend had recommended in Denver. Once seated, I ordered pumpkin curry pasta at the bar. When a guy sat down to my right and we started talking about turmeric lattes, I thought about my home in New York City and how far away thousands of kilometres really felt. I realized that, much like travelling alone, when dining alone I didn’t need to be alone if I didn’t want to be. I’d met a cast of characters on my journeys—some I’d never heard from again and some I follow on Instagram. It can feel hard to meet people, but here are some helpful tips on how to make friends as an adult.

Learning how to enjoy being alone

Devoid of my own conversation, I’d listen to the conversations around me and observe what was happening in the restaurant: chairs scooting backward, the clink of cutlery, and the cacophony of voices reverberating about the room. I didn’t expect to chat and get to know waiters who took my order. Sometimes, we’d have full conversations about our lives and why we were where we were.

I like going out to eat with friends and family. However, there’s an interesting draw to eating a meal alone in a new place. Similarly, the more I do things alone, the more I want to do things alone. There’s an inner power in doing things alone. Like any skill, dining alone needs to be practiced in order to be refined. I’ve ordered steak pies and Scottish breakfasts, croissants and coffees, pastas and sandwiches, all for a party of one. I didn’t have the perfect dining experience the first time I ate at a restaurant alone. However, as time went on, my confidence grew. I began to understand that each dining experience was supposed to be different—just like each solo trip is meant to be different.

When I finally realized dining alone could be fun

One time at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland a few months ago, I was exhausted from a day of exploring and went to a burger restaurant a friend had recommended. I walked inside and asked for a table for one. The back room was full of friends and large parties. Once seated, I didn’t feel the need to hide in my phone or journal. I didn’t feel like being immersed in a conversation. Instead, I took in the ambiance and allowed my thoughts to wander. I allowed myself to be present, and that was one of the greatest travel experiences of all.

Feed your wanderlust even more with these gorgeous travel photos.

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Originally Published on Reader's Digest