It’s been a while since I’ve been on holiday or travelled by myself, but being a military spouse I still regularly find myself eating or cafe-ing alone. For many, going into a restaurant or cafe solo will be absolutely no big deal. It might be something you’ve always done, or perhaps something you’ve never done but you know you’d never be worried about it if it came about.
Despite the fact I am a total introvert and love my own company, the thought of being alone in public usually makes me nervous — especially when it comes to eating out. Needless to say I’ve never let this stop me, but it still really worries me and I fret constantly about how to conquer this battle. And I know I’m not alone.
The last time I actually vacayed solo was to Oslo in Norway. It was only for a long weekend but I had gut-wrenching nerves every step of the way. Even though I’d done the airport experience multiple times before, there was a new sense of panic at not having a buddy, or someone to go wait Steph, the gate is number 7, not 17. Or to tell me I had the wrong time, or date, for a flight. Or that I’d left my bag somewhere. Even just someone to watch my bag or hold my place in line whilst I pee, y’know? You take these things for granted when you travel with someone else.
Getting to Oslo was relatively straightforward. Finding the AirBnB, which was surprisingly far away from the airport, went amazingly well (despite the fact it was an hour and a half’s bus ride followed by a train). Checking in was fine (albeit slightly scary because I was renting a single room in the flat owned by two guys in their mid-20s — perhaps alarm bells should’ve been ringing). In fact, the first time my anxiety started really kicking in was that first evening when I needed to find dinner.
I hadn’t already decided in advance where I’d be eating, which is unlike me. Instead I meandered my way down to the Aker Brygge docks area where the restaurants had a lovely view of the all the boats and harbour. I selected an eatery based on its availability of outdoor seating that didn’t look too intimidating, nervously checking out the menu board outside and bracing myself for the waiter to approach me and ask me if anyone else would be joining me. It was incredibly nerve-wracking, as he gestured for me to take a seat and then ran off to grab me a menu.
Once I’d ordered, I relaxed a bit. At that point it was apparent I was alone. There was no need to be anxious anymore. And since that time I’ve had to eat alone a multiple number of times due to travelling alone for work and I’ve gradually come to accept it as a fact of life, despite how worrying it is. In fact, right now I’m alone in a cafe in Bury St Edmunds. Even now I still had that anxiety upon approaching the door. I think it’s always the expectation of judgement that does it to me. Once I’m in the moment, I’m fine.
Are you nervous about eating alone when travelling solo or on work trips? These are my top tips to help you feel more comfortable.
baby steps… start with a coffee
If you know you have an upcoming solo dining experience, it makes sense to start smaller. For instance, going to a coffee shop alone and actually taking a seat, rather than a ‘to-go’.
Doing this process a few times will help you get over that initial anxiety of taking up a whole table to yourself. Command yourself to be more adventurous every time you go. Order a second coffee. Buy a sandwich. Read a chapter of a book. Make a phone call. Normalising the behaviour will make you feel more confident when you’re in need of spending a whole evening alone in public. And once you feel ready to take the next step, you can always start with a place like Wagamamas where there is communal seating so you’re not feeling anxious about taking up a whole table to yourself.
Dress up smartly
To be honest, this was my biggest piece of armour at a time in my life where entering a restaurant alone was positively terrifying. Dressing up smartly not only gave me confidence, but I felt like it gave me purpose. Putting on smart work clothes, I could pretend I was out-of-town for a work event rather than deliberately choosing to be by myself. I built up a persona in my head that I was a super important exec working for a high-flying company, and that confidence helped me hold my head up high and evaporated my worries almost instantly.
Take a long term distraction.
Having no distraction can lead to more nervous behaviour. There’s been many times when dining alone that I would absolutely avoid catching anyone’s eye, for instance, and would feel nervous about looking up — almost as if I was sat there naked and if I looked up suddenly everyone else would realise.
I’m now at a place where I feel more comfortable looking around and actually enjoy people-watching whilst I’m alone now. I like to make up little scenarios in my head about the people around me, gauging who is on a first date, who is on a super important business meeting, who is an MI5 spy, who is having an affair…. it’s an intense people-watching skill I’ve honed over the years.
And I’ve learned to take props with me now to help focus my mind and hands. I’ve taken books into restaurants with me, so that I have something to look at whilst I’m waiting for food. Even if the words aren’t processing in my head, at least my anxiety-ridden brain can be staring down at something, at least pretending to be busy, which does help calm me down. I’ve now started taking my laptop places with me (now that I have one that isn’t massively bulky and heavy) and being able to write nonsense blog posts whilst being alone has really helped me to stop stressing. Newspapers work well too as usually there’ll be all kinds of different articles to peak your interest and it takes a good half hour to skim through the paper.
I’ve found that just relying on my phone for company makes me more anxious. When I think of all of the games and distractions like the news, Instagram, Facebook etc, I assume that would keep me plenty busy, but it’s just not a distraction enough from my anxiety. Instead I feel better about being able to have my hands on something else and have my phone sat, unlooked at, next to me on the table.
If possible, sit at the bar to eat
I know from experience that taking up a whole table to yourself can heighten anxiety when you’re trying to keep your head down and feel anonymous. It can be deeply stressing saying to a server “table for one, please“.
If the table has a bar, taking a seat up there can be way less stressful and take off a lot of the pressure of being sat opposite an empty chair. Being able to check out all of the activity behind the bar and read all the labels of the expensive alcohol bottles has kept me occupied many a time and there’s less pressure to rush as you aren’t taking up a whole table. There’s also always the chance the bartender may start a conversation which can help put you at ease (or freak you out, depending on what kind of person you are!).
Have a drink, but don’t overdo the alcohol
Many of us do utilise a drink or two to help calm our nerves and, unless you’re driving, a wine or beer or gin at dinner is inevitable. However I would recommend not overdoing it.
Sat alone at a table can often prompt constant sipping of whatever is in front of you as if it’s Youth Dew. The nervousness, the finger tapping, the constant phone glances. And the picking up and down of the glass until it’s empty. I’ve done this before — being so nervous I just need something to do, and finding my G&T cocktail gone within a flash, meaning you order another. And another. Whilst this can be a confidence boost, not only will it potentially cost a small fortune but also remember one important thing — you alone have to get yourself home/back to your accommodation. I was very tempted whilst dining alone in London to drink myself into a merry little party but I had a solo walk and tube journey back to my AirBnB and wanted to have my wits completely about me. I had ‘one and done’ and then switched over to lemonade.
Tell yourself over and over again that no one is interested in you
Ouch right?! I mean, I don’t mean no one anywhere. But I mean unless you look like Pamela Anderson in her hey-day sat across from a group of teenage boys, most of the time when you’re out in a public place like a restaurant, people aren’t usually going to be interested in you. Either they’re on a date and worrying about whether they’ve got spinach in their teeth, or else they’re out eating with their new girlfriend’s family and trying not to say something stupid, or else they’re distracted by their wandering children, or distracted by their phones….you see where I’m going with this. Just like we tell nervous people who are going to the gym for the first time: “no one is going to be looking at you in your Lycra, everyone is too focused on what they’re doing“, it’s the same with being out in public. Unless you’re naked or screaming obscenities, it’s unlikely people are going to be paying you much attention and it helps to remind myself of this when I’m anxious.
Pretend to be someone else… ‘fake it until you make it‘
When bracing myself for entering a restaurant, it helps in my head to pretend I am someone else. I sometimes pretend I’m meeting a friend there later, or meeting a colleague for an important meeting. Sometimes I pretend I’m a female James Bond. 007, reporting for duty. I make myself feel super important and then whatever anyone else thinks is irrelevant to me.
And a practical tip…. make sure you have a jacket or coat with you to save your seat
It’s awkward getting up from the table to nip to the toilet when you’re alone. What if the waitor thinks you’ve left? What if they clear away your half-drunk cocktail and let a family sit down at your table?
Even if the weather is nice out, make sure you have at least a thin jacket to hang on the back of your chair — so they know you haven’t gone far. If you have a big coat, a nice restaurant might try and take this from you to hang up, but I’d recommend hanging onto it for this exact purpose. Or at least hang onto your scarf.
Utilising all of these methods I’ve managed to get myself to a point of feeling mildly comfortable eating out, at least once I’ve settled into my chair and got my menu. Up until that point I still get the nervous clammy palms and constantly worry I’ll humiliate myself in front of everyone.
Does any else suffer with this anxiousness when dining alone? Have you any tips to help get over it?