The Best Things About Dining Alone
Restaurants, magic, and doing whatever you please.
February 23, 2017 ● 3 min read
“I’ve always believed that certain places are like magnets and draw you towards them should you happen to walk within their radius. And this occurs imperceptibly, without you even suspecting. All it takes is a sloping street, a sunny sidewalk, or maybe a shady one. Or perhaps a downpour. And this leads you straight there, to the exact spot you’re meant to wash up.” — Patrick Modiano, "In the Café of Lost Youth"
I’ve always felt like Modiano does, that restaurants are like magnets.
Restaurants allow travelers and transplants to find a home in a new city, to be among people, take shelter from the rain, be cared for, to be fed. After a decade spent living in three major American cities and traveling to a handful of European ones, I have fallen in love with dining in all of them — alone.
The practice of wandering a city solo, witnessing the spectacle of urban life, free of social constraints and obligations, has a name: it goes by the French term flânerie. It’s a neutral activity, in which you are an impartial onlooker. But as you get to know a city, the practice evolves into letting yourself be intentionally drawn into a place. By the late 1950s, The Situationist International movement — the grandchildren of the flâneurs — had evolved the practice into la dérive, roughly translated as taking a walk and abandoning yourself to attractions inspired by your surroundings. Cafés and restaurants had a starring part to play in this: as fixed points in the city, the Situationists understood them as places where individuals could wander in alone and become a part of something bigger. These notions were the perfect antidote to my suburban upbringing in the American South, where leaving the house meant you had somewhere to go and nothing ever happened spontaneously. When I discovered them in college, they became a lifelong obsession.
Both flânerie and la dérive originated as subversive activities, intended to disrupt notions of what you’re supposed to do or where you’re supposed to be. While the practice of walking aimlessly through a city may not seem particularly rebellious now, ask yourself: when was the last time you did it? When was the last time you were fully present to the world around you, without an imposed structure or a goal? When was the last time you let yourself be led by something other than a plan and a GPS? When was the last time you chose to experience something alone?
The contemporary American psyche, with its orientation towards achievement and constant social connection, rejects the fundamental principles of both flânerie and la dérive. Restaurants are a perfect microcosm of this opposition. Restaurants of today are destinations, something discovered online and then sought out in real life to be checked off a list. They are meant to be enjoyed as a coupled or group activity, each party their own little island. A table becomes a study of interpersonal and social dynamics: you must decide together if you will choose and consume your fare individually, or as a group. If as a group, you must then navigate each others’ tastes. You watch how each member interacts with the server. You must negotiate an implicit timetable — how many courses will you have? Will you stay for an Amaro?
To be sure, there is beauty in that interplay, and sharing a meal with friends or family is one of the richest social rituals there is. But when you dine alone, you are free of these structures. That’s when magic can happen.
You could strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you. You could discover your new favorite wine. You could try an adventurous new dish. You could cheat on your diet. You could finish the book you’ve been reading, or start the one that’s been on your shelf for a year. You could meet the best person you never knew existed, and make a lifelong friend. You could get an idea for the next great American screenplay. Or you could enjoy a meal in meditative silence, watching the world around you. Every choice is your own.
A few loose rules: sit at the bar, never a table. Ask the bartender questions; take at least one of their recommendations. Fight the urge to stare at your phone, even to read. Bring something tangible. Finally, don’t commit to a particular restaurant ahead of time — head to a neighborhood with options, and wander. Look in all of their windows, consider their menus. And most importantly, keep yourself open to whatever the experience brings you.
When you walk into a restaurant alone, the next hour or two is undetermined: anything can happen. You’re in a vibrant space full of other people, untethered to anyone else’s appetites or tastes, and you will be fed. Despite what society tells you, this is all you need.