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The Art of Eating Out Alone

When I dine alone in a restaurant, I feel just as geeky as Mr. Bean…

I’ve been on the road this week, working away from home. It’s fun to have a change of scenery and to try out restaurants but I have to admit there is something lacking when you eat out alone. Sharing food with other people around a table is one of the most convivial activities I can think of, but eating by yourself is an experience of another sort.

You can meet other diners when you are eating alone, but only in the right environment. Most restaurants in our part of the world still have set tables designed for pre-formed groups. If you are a “table of 1” then you get put at a table with 2 seats but they won’t just drop someone off to join you.

You stand out as a solo diner.

You can make friends with the server but they only have so much time to chat, and if it’s when your food arrives at the table then you don’t want to be insulting the chef and letting the food get cold, do you?

You can bring a book or some other reading material but that can be awkward. Most books won’t stay open on their own so now you have only one hand left with which to eat your meal. If you have a magazine then they can often take up too much space on the table. Where do you put that vase of flowers, on the floor? Not likely. And don’t even think about bringing a newspaper – that’s just silly. Of course now many people have a portable e-reader or a deskpad… do you really want dinner-smudged fingerprints on your screen?

You can use your cell phone at the table, but many restaurants actually now encourage you to “check” your phone so as not to offend other diners with calls or other sounds.

You can people-watch, and this can be very interesting. So interesting in fact, that you find yourself straining to hear all the details of a conversation you start to overhear, or staring at a group that might be in the midst of an engaging discussion or proposal. Again, an awkward situation.

This seating scenario is one that does work for people-watching.

So, what to do? Stare at the food, or the wallpaper? Are you supposed to only look for pubs that have large TV screens available for staring into? Do you pick hotels with room service and surf the channels of hotel cable or read the city guide to see what you’ll be missing while you attend your conference or give your speech? This is really starting to sound pathetic… a drastic solution is required.

I’ve got it! How about this, since we are in a digital age, with wifi and multimedia everywhere? You could make full use of that table of 2 by inviting one of your friends as a virtual companion.  Go ahead, make that video call and set them up across from you. Maybe they will even plan to eat at the same time as you and then you can compare notes about your respective meals. This could work, I can see it happening.

I wonder though, would the restaurant want to charge you for that extra chair you’re now using? Would people start to prefer the option of being able to “pause” their dining companion? Maybe it’s better that we pine for someone’s company once in a while, just so we remember the beauty of the real thing.

If you’re in the Vancouver or Victoria area, here are the places I visited and can heartily recommend:

Mongo Bongo in New Westminster – a choose-your-own ingredients set up for Mongolian grill. Fun and tasty. They have a big screen 🙂

Pied a Terre in Vancouver (near Queen Elizabeth Park on Cambie) – a delightful little French bistro with  a great value table d’hote menu

Starbucks – easy to count on friendly staff if you need a smile and some small talk. And free wifi if you want to video call anyone.

Campagnolo Roma – one of 3 restaurants owned by a group, all of them great. This one features Roman dishes, fresh  and flavourful. Easy to people-watch here!

P.S. I stopped in Vancouver on my way home and had dinner with my Mom. As I was watching out the window, waiting for her to arrive at the restaurant, another solo diner came up to me and said, “If our dates don’t arrive, I’ll come and eat with you!” There’s an interesting concept, don’t you think?

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