Dining Out – What Is the Single Gourmet Looking For?

I grew up a foodie family where eating out, be it small cafes in Soho on a Saturday morning for breakfast or one of London’s finest for a celebration, was the norm (see The Single Gourmet Traveller post). So passionate about food was I, even as young as my teens, that when friends were putting up pictures of pop stars on their bedroom walls, I would put up photos torn from magazines of wonderful food. Now, that is slightly embarrassing to confess to, I know, but I want you to understand how I feel about food. Therefore, if I’m alone on holiday or maybe just wandering off for a while on my own; if I find myself in London one evening and think I’d prefer to eat out rather than heading home to cook, or fancy stopping at a local restaurant one Saturday lunchtime while shopping, I don’t think twice about it.  I’m not thinking about being alone, I’m just interested in finding somewhere good to eat!

However, since starting this blog I’ve been giving some more thought to the dining out alone question: would I be happy to eat anywhere? I realise my boundaries are possibly different to some people’s, but while I tell myself it’s the food that matters, in truth I want to feel comfortable as well and wouldn’t walk into just any restaurant alone. I want to sit somewhere I can relax, feel welcome and don’t feel I’m sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb.  Anonymity plays a part in it: in cities such as Rome or Venice, or when I was in Greece recently (see Beautiful Kardamyli), I don’t mind going into quite smart restaurants on my own. For me, enjoying the best of the local food – or finding it in markets and food stores to cook or picnic on – is a big part of my pleasure on holiday. But closer to home, I’m more likely to head to a cafe or one of the chains where there are likely to be other single diners and the atmosphere is easy. After all, I’m supposed to be enjoying myself.

I’ve been hearing stories over the past week of people – especially women – feeling intimidated about eating out alone or even having bad experiences. So, I thought, why does this happen? And what is the gourmet, out on their own, looking for in a restaurant? Over delicious coffee (one more for my best coffee list!) in A Cena this morning, I talked about it to Tim who, with his wife Camilla, opened the restaurant ten years ago. Described by Charles Campion in the Evening Standard as a ‘stylish restaurant’ and the Guardian as ‘serving fearsomely good food’, it’s been a family favourite since its opening. Sophisticated but relaxed and friendly, A Cena serves Italian food at its best. Tim said that lone diners were rare and he couldn’t remember a lone woman diner coming in at all, except occasionally elderly widows out for a treat. Of course, a restaurateur isn’t going to want to fill their tables with lone diners as it’s not economically sound, but Tim was clear that they should be welcomed and not treated differently after I told him some of my negative stories (not from anyone eating there, I should add!)  A Cena has recently opened a Panino Bar where you can enjoy lunchtime snacks and it is also open for breakfast with lovely home-made cakes to eat with coffee. That seems a brilliant way of enjoying its special atmosphere and good food on your own and I’m heading back soon to try lunch out there … so watch this space!

So, if the single gourmet wants to eat out and enjoy good food and a friendly atmosphere – but maybe also somewhere a bit special sometimes – where are the best places to eat? What makes a restaurant or cafe a good place to eat alone?  A friend Jenny wrote to me about my blog and told me she’d enjoyed lunch (‘food fine; not exceptional’) at the Cadogan Hall bar earlier this week after treating herself to a lunchtime concert there. There were, she said, a good number of people eating alone and ‘the layout with a counter all round the edge of the main room with highish chairs positively encourages them to feel at home, and a fair number got into conversations with strangers as a result.’

I’m going to be checking places out over the coming weeks, but please write in and let me know of any great places you know of or discover. Let’s spread the word so the single gourmet knows eating out alone is nothing to feel uncertain about, it’s something they deserve and should be able to enjoy.

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A lifelong lover of good food and travel; writer and book editor

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