The Art of Eating Alone

Artwork by Megan Smith

It’s two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon in San Sebastián. Grey clouds hang over long stretches of yellow beach as the residents of this Basque seaside town stroll up and down the beachside promenade. The sand is dotted with people, and if you look into the water, you’ll see the bobbing heads of the braver beach-goers, a paddle boarder or two, or maybe a few wet-suited surfers. It’s grey and windy but it’s summer after all in one of Spain’s rainiest cities.

Walking inwards from the beach, you’ll find narrow cobbled streets crammed with bars, inside which people elbow their way to the front, ordering sparkling white wine and a selection of the best food San Sebastián has to offer: the pintxo. Your selection of pintxos might include a slice of tortilla, stuffed crab or thin salty anchovies pinned to a chunk of baguette. It’s likely that the servers behind the bar will be rude to you. Customer service doesn’t exist in this part of Spain. The food is so good that it doesn’t need to.

Down one particular side street is a bar named Casa Urola. Upstairs they have a restaurant with white table cloths and waiters who might occasionally smile, but downstairs is where you’ll find the Michelin Star pintxos. Today Casa Urola is almost full. Two Basque men in their sixties share a plate of jamón iberico. A group in the corner are drinking wine and ordering octopus on soft sliced potatoes. A family cram around a tiny table in the middle, making their way through the pintxos they’ve ordered, arguing about the best way to cut a scallop five ways.

A woman walks into the restaurant alone. She sits at the only remaining table, right by the bar. She orders a glass of wine and her eyes glance over a menu she doesn’t understand. She’s just learned how to make paella in Barcelona and she’s on her way through the Basque country to learn the art of pintxo-making. After San Sebastián, she’ll travel through the Balearic Islands and onto Lebanon, Egypt, then Jordan. For now though, she sips her wine and she orders a ración of chargrilled mushrooms and duck egg yolk in a bed of potato foam. The woman is relaxed. The woman is happy.

Before you ask, I’m not the woman. Her name is Linh and she’s a Vietnamese architect living in London. I’m on a stool a few feet away from her, crammed around a table, bickering with my family because my one-fifth of scallop is too small. We seem to fail at ordering enough pintxos everywhere we go and morale is falling because it’s August, we’re in Spain and the sun is nowhere to be seen. Linh, on the other hand, has no one to bicker with. Before her food arrives she tells us where she’s been and where she’s going. She talks about her favourite Vietnamese restaurants in London and she shows us pictures of the food she cooked over lockdown. Then the plate is put in front of her. She marvels at her food, eating it slowly as we turn back to our table and continue to slice our sardines in half.

There’s something to be said about eating alone and I don’t think it gets enough credit. The problem is that the idea of going solo is clouded in enough social intimidation that a lot of us rarely do it. In 2015 a study in the Journal of Consumer Research looked into why many people feel anxious about going out alone and the number one reason was fear of judgment by others. The results showed that the avoidance of spending time on your own in public spans cultures and gender, though it unsurprisingly decreases the more ‘practical’ the activity appears to be. Interestingly the study also discovered that those who frequent bars and restaurants on their own enjoy their time out just as much as they would with a friend, because really, once we get past the lie we feed ourselves that everyone around us cares what we’re doing, there’s a lot of enjoyment to be taken from it.

I moved to Tokyo in January of last year. I was twenty-two years old and I had never eaten in a restaurant alone. My first few meals in one of the culinary capitals of the world was a concoction I’ve named bed-spaghetti, though I didn’t actually eat much for those first three days anyway. I blamed my lack of eating on the nausea that came with cross-continental emigration, but really I saw the rows of restaurants with lines of locals coming out and the kanji-scribbled menus I couldn’t read and I decided I couldn’t do it. The supermarkets were even harder to navigate but I found spaghetti and I found sauce and for a while that was all I needed.

It’s strange to think about it now because unlike Western countries, Japan is geared towards solo dining. When I finally slid open the doors to restaurants around the city, I discovered ramen like I’d never eaten before, glistening deep-fried pork cutlet, thick sashimi sliced on sticky sushi rice. And so many people were eating alone. Tokyo is a noisy place and there was a peaceful pleasure that came from sitting at the counter in a ramen restaurant surrounded by fellow solo slurpers giving undivided attention to the bowl of noodles before them. One of my favourite places to eat ramen was a chain called Ichiran. Orders are placed via a machine and your salty bowl of tonkotsu is served to you in an individual booth by a pair of hands attached to a body you can’t actually see. Human interaction is minimal at Ichiran; the idea is that you focus one hundred percent on the food. Ichiran is now a global chain and has proved what so many Western restaurants fail to understand: there is not only a comfort in, but a demand for, eating alone.

Of course this can be looked at from the opposite perspective. With urbanisation comes social isolation, which pushes a lot more people to begrudgingly utter the words: table for one. Cities can be lonely places. Ironically, there’s something about the mass presence of other human beings that seems to dispel the ability to form new connections, and so to many the increasing stats on solo dining come as a concern. Yet when I think back to my loneliest points when living abroad, they were the nights when I didn’t eat out. They were the nights when I wasn’t appreciating the city I lived in. The nights when I instead chose bed-spaghetti. The Guardian recently reported a 160% increase in solo diners over four years and though it must undeniably correlate with urban lifestyles and the speed with which we live our lives, I don’t see how it’s a bad thing. Loneliness likes to hide itself behind closed doors, and the majority of restaurants do have other people inside them whether they’re sitting at your table or not. Alone, I ate in restaurants all over the country and I struck up conversations almost everywhere I went. The times that I didn’t were equally as enjoyable because I got to know more about the person I was sitting down to dinner with, and by that I mean myself.

Linh is now in Jordan. She’s sending me pictures of the baked kofta she’s eating in Amman and she’s telling me about the complex ingredients, herbs and spices used in Palestinian cuisine. She says that it’s one of the many greatly underrepresented cuisines worldwide and that its origins are misunderstood due to the plight of Palestinian refugees across the Middle East. ‘The Arabic pistachio ice cream with mastic gum is also outstanding,’ she writes. When I ask about her experiences travelling and dining alone she says that she finds it to be one of the best ways to gain new perspectives, that in doing so she enjoys each authentic experience and immerses herself in everything that’s happening around her. Most importantly, she writes, is that ‘it gives you access to the depth of your inner soul and knowing who you are is the best knowledge you could have in life.’ For Linh the experience isn’t a lonely one. In Porto, when told that the dish she wanted was only available for two people, the couple at the next table invited her to share it with them. They ended up spending all evening together. ‘There are many experiences like that,’ she writes. ‘You are more likely to talk to people you meet when you are alone and the conversation is often interesting because it is pure experience without any expectation or planning.’

On Linh’s journey she has met new people, she has listened to new stories and she has eaten food that many of us have never even heard of. I don’t feel concerned by the Guardian statistics and I don’t see why any of us should. Dining alone is an experience to be embraced and when I scroll through Linh’s Instagram feed or my own camera roll from a year ago, I only feel jealous. And hungry, maybe, to go out and do it all again.

Article by Annabel White