Solo travel comes with all kinds of challenges, from figuring out how to navigate a foreign city’s transportation system to figuring out how much laundry should cost. But there’s one aspect of solo travel that can intimidate even the casual weekend road tripper: eating out alone.
Eating alone can be uncomfortable even in your own city, where you can order food without struggling to pronounce it, and where you know exactly how much to tip the waiter (that’s probably why it is on so many people’s bucket lists).
And when you’re abroad, little details like that can make the prospect of eating alone in a foreign city even more intimidating.
Still, going out to eat is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to get the feel of a new place, plus it can be an empowering experience. Can you imagine skipping the crazy Robot Restaurant in Tokyo or missing out on eating traditional wiener schnitzel in Vienna because you didn’t want to eat alone? Me neither.
So, for all the self-conscious solo diners out there, I’ve put together a few tips for making the most out of eating alone while you’re traveling or even at a restaurant near home.
Dining Solo: Tips for Eating Out Alone
Pick the Meal
First thing is first: decide which meal will be your first solo dining excursion for the trip.
If you’re worried about sitting alone in a busy restaurant—and most of us are—starting with lunch might be a good idea. You’ll be able to avoid the dinner crowds, not to mention the long wait and occasional curious stares from your fellow diners.
Even if lunch is a bit busy for your taste, you can find times in the day where the dining rush dies down altogether. Depending on where in the world you are, you might have luck during the brunch hours or the awkward post-lunch/pre-dinner window. My first time dining alone was in the early evening well before the dinner rush.
If you’re really nervous, you can always scope the situation out first by doing take out and then commit to a meal on the next visit.
Select the Restaurant
When it comes to solo dining, all restaurants are not created equal. Obviously, crowded date-night spots might not be your most comfortable option. Similarly, going to a big, loud restaurant by yourself—especially in the evenings—can feel a lot like going to a club by yourself.
Instead, pick a place that’s a bit quieter. Sure, you might be surrounded by couples and families all the same, but there are a few perks to opting for a more chilled out environment: you’ll probably be less likely to get the she-must-be-getting-stood-up stares from your neighbors, and you’re more likely to get good service from a waiter who isn’t swamped with large, demanding groups.
While you’re out exploring, look for a laidback café or restaurant with a bar. That way, you won’t feel as rushed to give up your seat, and you’ll at least be able to chat with the bartender if you’re feeling awkward.
What to Wear
This one is pretty straightforward, and it’s a rule I think you should stick by: dress yourself up.
Even if you’ve spent all afternoon hiking a volcano or soaking in a natural hot spring and want nothing more than to throw on your comfy lounge pants and just slam some pasta, treat this like a date and take the time to dress yourself up.
If you’re at all nervous that your solo date will make you self-conscious—and honestly, aren’t we all?—then taking that extra effort to make yourself look and feel nice will go a long way toward alleviating your nerves.
Besides, you won’t know if people are staring at you because you’re alone, because you’re seriously slamming that pasta, or because you look incredible. It’s a win-win.
Where to Sit
The first thing I do when entering a restaurant alone is tell the hostess “just one” before she asks me how many. For some reason this eases my nerves. Many times they will guide you in an appropriate place to sit, but sometimes they leave the choosing up to you.
If you’ve found that café or restaurant with a bar, pull up a stool. You’ll be a bit less conspicuous there than you would be sitting alone at a table for two, with the added bonus that you can strike up a conversation with other solo diners.
Some restaurants also have community tables, which can be another great way to talk to other guests. Of course, not everyone at communal tables is there alone—sometimes it’s just the quickest way for a party of two to grab a seat—but sitting next to or in front of your fellow diners definitely opens the door to conversation in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen at the bar.
What to Bring
It’s always a good bet to bring along some reading material (my book Bucket List Adventures would be a great choice—shameless plus). Even if you don’t need the distraction from your self-consciousness, having something to read makes a good standby for when people watching gets old (or starts to border on creepy) over the course of your meal.
Throw a good paperback, your Kindle, your iPad, or your phone in your bag and you’ll still have a lovely meal, even if you don’t happen to strike up a conversation with your neighbor. And if you’re really feeling weird about the whole eating alone thing, you can always use your phone or tablet to message a friend while you dine.
Placing Your Order
You’re taking yourself on a date, remember? So treat yourself!
Order something you wouldn’t normally splurge on, like a nice drink or a dessert that has you drooling. If you’re up for it, round out the experience by picking out a few items to try. Going out to eat can be such a unique and creative way to experience a new place, so enjoy yourself! I ordered a yummy 3-course meal at Arizona’s BLD restaurant my first time solo dining, and shamelessly ate all of it.
Self-conscious about eating a lot (alone) in front of people? Don’t worry. I’ll tell you what you already know: they’re way too busy enjoying their food and company to pay attention to how much you ordered. And if they aren’t, you’ll be too busy enjoying your meal to notice. But, if eating in front of people still makes you nervous choose items that are easier to eat. Stay away from the spaghetti with red sauce or saucy buffalo wings.
Admittedly, being a restaurateur probably makes me biased here, but I think that going out to eat is one of the best ways to experience a new place—even if that means eating out alone.
Hopefully, these tips will help you to make the most of your next solo dining experience!