We are so culturally conditioned to seeing the breaking of bread as a communal activity that a stigma remains attached to the solo diner. This is compounded by restaurants aiming for maximum bums on seats – meaning they can baulk at a lone ranger taking up a double slot.
Plus, people are ghastly. A group of female diners once removed my place setting in the sea-view area of a Greek restaurant because they wanted to add my table to theirs for their husbands, regardless of my being halfway through my meal. I had to point out that – despite not sporting a wedding ring – I did still qualify as human.
Even the most stalwart solo traveller can feel shy about lone dining, fearing they may look a tad Johnny No-Mates. This is not helped by some hotel staff seeing this as an opportunity to hit on single guests, or push them towards the “social” table for people who’d like to make friends; not all of us do all of the time – some of us, like Garbo, want to be alone. For there is real joy to be had in a solo supper: eating what one wants, when one wants, at one’s own pace. Go slightly early or late. Pick a restaurant with a bar area at which one can eat, or that is spacious enough for you to be accommodated without being glared at by waiting groups. Sushi bars and bistros tend to be good at handling lone diners, tapas and/or fondue joints less so. Don’t feel it has to be a spartan affair: if you want the lobster, have the lobster, and enjoy every last morsel. Ditto decent booze.
A regular adventurer recommends bringing a magazine rather than a newspaper, having once inadvertently set the latter on fire, then picking a window seat for people-watching. She avoids being too fancily dressed so as not to look as if she has been stood up, and turns down any drinks sent over, because to accept them is to accept the sender’s company. One doesn’t always have to think along such defensive lines, but some men persist in imagining that a lone female diner is awaiting chaps rather than chips.
Talking to strangers
It is Murphy’s Law that – having had your solitude disturbed when you are keen on cultivating it – the moment you decide you do want to talk to people, all social opportunity will vanish. Still: persevere. It may not feel terribly British to strike up a conversation with a stranger, but that is why we are forced to travel.
This need not be a romantic encounter. The most satisfying travel bonds tend to be platonic. I met one of the most brilliant individuals I have ever come across in an Indian spa. He was fuming about being told to address his (not so) inner rage; I was in a bate about my (not so) inner child. We swore a lot, went to get martinis, then pledged lifelong allegiance.
The first thing to do is smile, look approachable, take an interest in your surroundings, engage. Pull this off and you may not even need to make the first move. A charming septuagenarian couple that I ran into in a Bangkok yoga class once invited me to dinner to ask whether I’d hold his hand while she had her face lifted.
If matters fall to you, start with a compliment. Women, in particular, never fail to be enchanted by a declaration such as: “I love your top/hair/child” (if you are male, try to make this sound genuine rather than sleazy). Follow up with a question. In Naples ask about the best pizza gaff, in Berlin the best beer. Should you spot a tourist with a different guidebook, inquire what they make of it and compare notes. Practice on bar staff. They’re paid to be nice to you. Ditto Airbnb hosts.
Many restaurants provide communal tables, not all of them excruciating. Arrange an excursion or attend a gallery opening to get talking over a shared activity. Make your whereabouts known on social media, and see whom friends suggest you meet up with. If you’re somewhere for more than a few days, establish a routine. Nigella Lawson wrote that she felt accepted on her gap year in Florence when the local drag queens started husking: “Ciao, bella” at her as they crossed paths every evening.
Solo culture attending a performance
On your tod
Keep it under your hat, but some of us prefer attending plays, operas, ballets, and concerts on our own. For a start, one doesn’t have to put up with someone else’s banal commentary, lavatorial requirements, or interval halitosis. All the things that can make a trip to the theatre so buttock-clenchingly awful are dispelled in an instant. Well, apart from the actors, but that’s less easy to resolve.
If it’s not your cup of tea, you can walk out with impunity without ruining someone else’s evening. At the same time, one can choose the grandest or most humble seat without dragging someone else up or down to one’s financial level, availing oneself of the best last-minute slots.
Glenda Jackson’s King Lear sold out apart from a single seat in the middle of the third row on a Tuesday night? Terrific – this can be yours! It’s a wonder any culture vultures ever sally forth in pairs. Forget the elaborate scramble to meet in the foyer, book drinks, and secure programmes. Go solo and slip into your seat at 7.28pm, all tedious preamble dispensed with.
However, you may want to arrive earlier to soak up a little atmosphere. Opera houses, in particular, can mesmerise – whether Paris’s epically ornate Palais Garnier, or Parma’s bijou neoclassical Teatro Regio. The buildings, the frocks, the frightfully important hairstyles – book a drink and a bowl of olives, then settle down to soak up the scene.
Many’s the single traveller who has picked solo ballet or opera by way of a Christmas treat – so much light, good cheer and festive warmth. I have also ventured to the theatre on my own on New Year’s Eve, wending my way back through crowds at 11pm to be blissfully in bed by midnight.
Attending the cinema alone was long ago repackaged as the ultimate in self-indulgence. Why should solo live performances be any different? Go, think, wallow – lose yourself in the darkness. Just take care to have a disco/ballet nap beforehand so that the warmth and the comfort don’t lull you off to sleep after a day spent taking in the town.