The last restaurant I ate alone at was Whitman’s, a burger joint in Manhattan’s East Village. I brought the book I’m currently reading, The Female Persuasion, and ordered a turkey burger. I was one of two parties dining in the restaurant that night; the other was a larger group, some friends of the waitress and manager, debating topics from the legitimacy of online therapy to whether or not one woman’s father was actually an a**hole. Their voices naturally rose as their conversation got heated (No, it’s not worth the money! The therapist doesn’t even give me advice!), and I felt annoyed because I had come to the restaurant to eat my burger and read quietly. I wondered if the waitress could sense my disapproval of the other table’s loud banter. In that moment, I had to remind myself that most people come to restaurants (and particularly, burger joints) to socialize, so I let go of my desire to read and instead, found solace in my own thoughts.
I first started eating alone at restaurants when I was in high school, after I’d gotten my driver’s license. At the time, I did it mainly to escape; Teenage Alexandra was angsty and always “needed space.” I don’t recall ever feeling self-conscious about my solo dining habit, or even really giving it much thought. Walking into a restaurant and saying, “Table for one, please,” came naturally to me, though I suppose to others, a 16-year-old girl eating alone in a restaurant may have looked like something of an anomaly.
As a young woman living in New York City, I continue to find comfort in my mealtime ritual. I eat dinner alone, at a restaurant, at least once a week and my routine brings me a sense of confidence and joy. Generally, when I mention to friends or coworkers that this is something I actually enjoy, they laugh or say “Wow” or exclaim that eating alone in public is something they’d never do. Their discomfort at the idea is often palpable.
Oxford Economics recently published a study that found that regularly eating alone is one of the strongest associating factors with unhappiness. Based on other people’s reactions to my own habits, I wasn’t surprised to see these results, though I do feel a personal sense of disagreement. The study seems to suggest that regularly eating alone could be harmful, which certainly isn’t my experience. Still, I’m sure it’s true that eating alone day after day by circumstance, rather than by choice, could definitely be lonely.
Personally, I eat dinner “in isolation” one or two times a week, while the other nights are spent dining with my partner or with friends. “Maybe that’s why I’m cool with eating alone in public?” I asked myself while writing this, suddenly feeling less able to give myself credit for a habit I’m pretty proud of. Do I only enjoy this ritual because it’s one pleasant moment of solitude in a life otherwise filled with joyful social experiences? Perhaps. But then I remember that it’s also true that I’ve enjoyed eating alone since I was a teenager, and the habit actually formed when I didn’t have a loving partner, or even many friends, and was actually struggling with waves of depression.
As the study suggests, humans crave social interaction. “Evening meals are often best to spend with others,” says Dr. Robin Dunbar, who worked on the Oxford Economics study. “The act of eating, and the accompanying social interaction, both trigger endorphins.” Plus, not only does that habit trigger a physical response—for many of us, it’s also considered the norm. Western society often shames those who opt out from any social experience. I wonder if that’s part of the reason why I find my ritual so appealing, even if I don’t get the endorphin benefit that Dunbar talks about—because it’s something of a personal rebellion, an effortless rejection of a societal norm. Really, other people’s discomfort in doing something that feels so natural to me has made me feel confident, and a little contrarian, and I like that. And truthfully, there’s probably also a part of me that just likes to eat alone, simply because I like the idea that I’m the sort of unusual lady who likes to eat alone.