The Pleasures of Dining Out Alone
By Candolin Cook
I was never a huge Sex and the City fan, but one episode I caught years ago has stayed with me, strangely. In a scene from “They Shoot Single People Don’t They?” Samantha finds herself alone at a fancy restaurant after being stood up by her dinner date. The usually self-assured character is humiliated to be seen dining solo without a “book or a project or any of her dining-out-alone armor,” Carrie narrates. By the end of the episode, Carrie, defiant of perceived social norms, takes herself out to lunch—“No books, no man, no friends, no armor, no faking.” I remember being amused by the notion that dining out alone, especially as a single woman, was somehow a brave act.
At the time, I was also living in New York City, one of the greatest food cities in the world. I was in a relationship but ended up eating most of my meals in restaurants alone, because my boyfriend wasn’t “a food person”—we are no longer together, for obvious reasons. In New York, a dinner enjoyed solo, even at nicer restaurants, is quite common—busy schedules, tiny kitchens, and an abundance of eateries to try out are just a few reasons the city lends itself to this practice.
Once I moved to Albuquerque, however, I better understood the insecurities intrinsic to eating out alone. For starters, in New Mexico, you simply don’t see that many people doing it. Sure, on a Wednesday afternoon at the Frontier there are plenty of lone lobos noshing on a burrito while scrolling through their phones; but it is far more rare to see parties of one during dinner service at an elegant restaurant. Without a strong solo dining culture, going stag to a restaurant—especially a more upscale one—can feel intimidating: Is the hostess judging me? Am I taking space from a two-top? Is that creepy guy who keeps looking at me going to come over here?
New York restaurants also tend to feel more welcoming to unaccompanied diners because of the ubiquity of space-saving seating options—counters, bars, bistro and communal tables—which lend themselves to both solitary eating and to meeting new people. Such single-friendly accommodations are less prevalent in Albuquerque establishments. There are, however, notable exceptions where the counter or bar has the best seats in the house, including some of my favorite dinner spots—Farina, Frenchish, The Feel Good, and Magokoro.
On a recent Tuesday evening, I stopped into Campo, located at Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm, and snatched the last empty stool at the bar. Unlike the main dining room at the James Beard Award-nominated restaurant, the bar area at Campo does not require dinner reservations. The space is bright and rustic, with an easy elegance and impressive collection of well-curated spirits on display. Bar Campo’s food menu offers the same small plates available in the restaurant, along with a Chef’s Special entrée, available on Mondays and Tuesdays when the dining room is closed. Tonight’s special, my bartender Gabriel informs me, is a grilled chicken salad with asparagus, cherries, and toasted pumpkin seeds, tossed with a cherry-dijon vinaigrette.
I love chatting up bartenders when I dine alone. They tend to be more attentive than table servers, and their conversation offers a pleasant break from people-watching or relying on my own “dining-out-alone armor”—which this evening is a well-worn notepad and a copy of the New Yorker.
“Are you staying at the inn?” Gabriel asks, sliding over my cocktail, A Definite Maybe (Del Maguey Vida mezcal, Gran Classico, Palo Santo Sweet Vermouth, and Aperitivo Cappelletti served in an old-fashioned glass with one large, crystal clear ice cube—classy). I explain that I’m a local and writing a story about dining out alone. “This is a great place for it,” he says. “Probably half the bar’s customers on weeknights come by themselves.” That estimate appears accurate this evening. Small groups are huddled together in the lounge areas set up near the entrance, but seated next to me at the long wood-top bar are five nicely-dressed women, all seemingly enjoying food, drink, and their own company.
Dining alone has become far more commonplace in the years since the women of Sex and the City helped glamorize a modern single lifestyle. A 2015 study by OpenTable found that reservations for one had increased by sixty-two percent in just two years, making it the fastest growing table size in the United States. A more recent report from a market research organization found that solo diners at fast-casual restaurants (think Chipotle) and coffee shops account for thirty-eight to fifty percent of sales, respectively; though at full-service restaurants that percentage is relatively “insignificant.” Interestingly, another study, cited in the Washington Post in 2015, suggested that nearly half of all meals (dining in and out) are consumed alone. Industry experts say these numbers are increasing, in part, due to the fact that American households are getting smaller. The number of never-married Americans has never been higher, and about twenty-eight percent of households are made up of one individual.
Other recent articles and alarmist op-eds have purported that there is a correlation between the rise of solo dining and a national epidemic of loneliness, as well as a deterioration of family values. Think pieces on the “death of the family dinner” and the “snackification of meals” suggest we are a society too absorbed in our own busy lives to appreciate how communal eating is “crucial to civilization,” as Michael Pollan has said. What I think these hand-wringers are missing, however, is that perhaps more people are discovering the pleasures of eating alone. Whether it is out of necessity or by choice, consuming a meal alone, in public or private, contains its own unique joys.
Digging into my wonderfully smokey and spicy ash-roasted vegetable tostada, I survey the scene at Bar Campo, paying particular attention to my fellow solo patrons. One has earbuds in and I decide she’s likely listening to a comedy podcast since she’s chuckling softly to herself while picking at an artisanal cheese plate. Another is an inn guest having a conversation with her bartender, Autumn, who is giving thoughtful recommendations on what to do in Santa Fe tomorrow (“Forget the plaza for shopping. Try Kitchenality for incredible second-hand kitchenware,” she suggests). Others appear to half-read a paperback or check Facebook or are concentrating on eating their Alaskan halibut and green chile ceviche—piled high on a bed of local greens and topped with crispy tortilla strips. Not one looks lonely or sad or out of place.
As the evening goes on, many of the singles are replaced by couples out for a date night. Gabriel places my dessert on the counter before me—a wedge of multi-layered honey cake with a large, delicate piece of honey brittle arranged atop. It tastes homey, like my grandmother’s baking, if my grandma had studied for a couple semesters at the Culinary Institute of America.
My thoughts drift to a Food52 article I read recently about “loner culture” becoming trendy in some Asian countries. In South Korea, for instance, there is a word for eating alone: honbap—a portmanteau of honja (alone) and bap (meal). The practice has been made cool in recent years, the article explains, thanks to K-pop stars who share their honbap meals on social media and television. In Tokyo, ramen restaurants with cubicle seating have become very popular, and the human element is even further removed because orders are placed with a button system, then slid discreetly under a slightly raised partition, like an edible peepshow. (This trend also reached the States in 2018 with the opening of Ichiran in New York City.)
However, for many of us, going out to eat alone is not about isolation—that’s what Postmates is for. It’s about savoring a delicious meal, thoughtfully prepared, plated, and served, in a nice ambiance, amid others, just not with others. Dining alone allows you to eat exactly what you want, where and when you want. To decompress from a long day, with good food, without having to make small talk (but allowing for the possibility of an interesting conversation with a new acquaintance). It’s about partaking in one of life’s great pleasures on your own terms. So bring your armor, or just yourself, because if you’re eating alone, you’re sure to be in good company.