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Lifestyle: The lone diner

July 29, 2012

Eating out is a social activity, and communal eating is the way to go: restaurant tables sport groups of nucleic or extended family members, friends or acquaintances, colleagues or businessmen. Solo diners hardly register on the gastronomic scale.

Well, there can be any number of reasons for eating out alone: if you’re single and don’t need a crutch for the simple act of eating out; or it’s the cook’s day out and you’re home alone and can’t be bothered to cook for yourself; you want to treat yourself to a consolation or celebration; you want some quiet de-stressing, far from the madding crowd ‘me’ time of solitude to reflect; you need to get out and about; you travel for business; you’re coping with an empty nest; you want to grab a quick bite between work or errands; your friends and family don’t like a restaurant that you really want to try; you get a sudden, uncontrollable craving for a food and can’t wait for someone to join you; you want to experience a self-actualising pleasure-seeking recreational activity; you’re a footloose and fancy free foodie, or maybe you’re just a recluse who enjoys savouring a meal without small talk.

Whatever the reason, dining out alone certainly has its liberating aspects. You have the freedom to come and go as you please without the hassle of coordination. You can change your plans according to your needs and mood without worrying about inconveniencing others. You can go where you want and order what you want without worrying about pleasing others with your choice of place or food. You don’t have to agree to go somewhere you don’t want to go. You can order anything as cheap or expensive as you like and tip likewise, with no bickering over who pays the bill.

Some people love eating out alone, especially when they are in their alone zone. It’s a secret luxury-escape from the wearying tedium of commitment and responsibility.

Sairah, a mother of two grown-up children, often dines out alone. “It’s fun — just me, myself and I, alone — although strangers do come to my table and ask me to join them. ‘Baychaari akailay kha rahi hai’ I hear them say. But that doesn’t bother me; I love to just sit in a quiet corner by myself in any one of my favourite cafes, order my small portion of food, and enjoy the meal, a good book, people-watching and some ‘me’ time.

While some people find it a pleasurable activity, many find it daunting. They can eat out alone anywhere in the world without a second thought, in the safety of anonymity. But here in their hometown, with chances of running into an acquaintance fairly high, the probability of the ensuing whispering, judging, prying and conjecturing is unnerving. Worse, what if they are pitied and invited over because they look like friendless lonely losers? They would feel awkward and self-conscious.

For many people here who are blessed with countless close family and friends, eating out is a social opportunity for long, leisurely chats with companions. There is absolutely no need for them to eat out alone. They think eating alone is morbidly depressing and a last recourse. Even if they are ‘foodaholics’, they would much rather takeaway, order in or even go hungry.

“Sometimes I do have to eat alone. I get a lot of curious stares and strange looks from other diners. I can see them thinking — am I a stalker, a pick-up guy, or the ‘forever alone’ guy? I usually take my business calls to avoid such looks. Even the waiters keep checking incredulously if I will be joined by someone or am I really ‘just one,” says 30-something Sami.

Restaurant owners say with eateries of all categories popping up all over town, unless a restaurant is always filled to capacity, the concept that solo diners waste good space does not hold salt now. Any paying customer is welcome in today’s economy.

Syed Ali Raza Abidi, owner of Biryani Of The Seas, says solo diners are a regular sight at his roadside cafe through the day, from noon to midnight. Most of them have their personal favourite waiters who know their preferences.

Hussain Tariq’s Cafe Blue Ginger is also no stranger to solo diners. “Because we are on the main road, tourists and shoppers who come to witness the razzmatazz at Zamzama often drop in here for refuelling. We get a lot of solo diners, both men and women, and we value them as much as any group. In fact, some solo diners end up paying more than a table of two! The waiters have been briefed to give equal attention and service to any customer, regardless of number.”

Some tips for would-be solo diners: Start small. Try casual, quiet or low-profile places for your first few times if you feel awkward, and work your way up from there.

Choose restaurants that will give you the something extra that would appeal to you and make it an enjoyable experience: TV, WiFi, outdoor seating, romantic ambiance, colourful customers, quick service or exotic food.

Make a reservation or eat early. If you haven’t already made a reservation, arrive at the restaurant the moment it opens for lunch or dinner to get your choice of table and personal attention from the staff, who in peak hours might be too frazzled to waste a table or time on a lone diner.

Stride in confidently, smile and ask for a “table for one, please.” If you don't make a big deal out of it, no one else will either.

Arm yourself if you need to, to stave off boredom or unwanted attention while you wait for your meal or your bill: a book, guidebook, puzzle, magazine, newspaper, Blackberry, Kindle, iPod and/or iPad. Catch up on work, read and reply to e-mails, tweets, inboxes and text messages, write out post cards and thank-you cards, draft your to-do list, take pictures, make notes in your journal, or review the restaurant food, service and décor.

If you need to use the restroom between your meal, let the waiters know you’ll be back so they don’t clear your table thinking you’re done.

Tip your waiter generously. Keep your ride ready.

Above all, enjoy your meal — savour the flavours, the textures and the smells, something you might not be able to do with the distraction of a group; and enjoy your company — it’s not every day you get to spend time alone with someone as special as yourself.