Opinion & Features

The joy of dining alone

A detail from Sunlight in a Cafeteria (1958), by Edward Hopper

As an introvert, I'm always happy to request a table for one

“Dining,” someone once said to me, when the subject of eating alone in restaurants came up, “is something you have to do with another person. After all, the prefix ‘di-’ means two.”

Maybe I was overwhelmed by this dubious morphology, because I don’t remember how I responded. But I can feel my face warming with wrath as I remember that conversation. It revealed so much about the divergent instincts of introverts and extroverts, and the arrogant abuse the former often must endure.

As an introvert, I like to eat alone in restaurants. I enjoy it – the time for reflection, jotting new ideas for projects, absorbing the ambience. This is not a confession, though many will think of it that way, as if I had just admitted to membership of a nudist splinter faction of Freemasons.

Because if there is such a thing as “society”, its default setting is extroversion. Most of the pleasures of modern life are designed for the extrovert’s tastes and preferences. In order to “have fun”, you are almost forced to do so in a group, or at a venue that requires primitive emoting rituals like cheering.

The sole practitioner of leisure is at a disadvantage. Most establishments don’t cater for him. His choices are automatically suspect to others, and these people, even if random strangers, are not shy about offering unsolicited advice or comments.

One recent weekend, I sat reading in a cafe. “No plans this afternoon?” asked one of the employees, as he cleaned the table next to mine. You see? “Plans” are assumed to be something other than what I’m actually doing. No one ever asks a chanting drunkard at a baseball game whether he has “plans” to read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in the middle of the third inning.

Introverts, I have found, are tolerant of extroverts. We accept that their way of life is, or assumed to be, the norm. Besides, even introverts enjoy extrovert pleasures on occasion. I understand others’ love for loud concerts and sporting events, even if just one a year suffices for me.

With introvert pleasures, there is no reciprocal understanding. The desire to be alone, to experience the cleansing quiet of solitude, is viewed with a kind of suspicion. If you tell someone you are staying in on a Friday night, they expect an explanation. You must assure them that all is well.

They almost demand a log of your week’s activities, so they can quantify whether your alone time is justified in light of such a demanding schedule. There is no venue at which solitude is more suspicious than a restaurant.

Sometimes it starts at the door. Request a table for one and watch the flimsy veneer of good nature peel away from the hostess’s face, like cracked clown make-up flaking to the floor. I can almost read the words in their minds: “Who is this person taking up a whole table for himself? Where is his group?” Sometimes they ask whether you’d like to “sit at the bar”: their last-ditch effort to shoehorn you into normalcy.

If you run a computer search for dining alone, you’ll find that every article must mention The Stigma. Even if the writer enjoys the experience of dining alone, he must assure his readers that he’s a Normal Person – a pledge of allegiance to the herd before admitting his individuality. Others speak about it as an inherently tragic experience. “I’m finally getting used to eating alone,” writes one travel blogger, in a tone one might reserve for the latter stages of grief.

Come to think of it, I have met many extroverts who admit to liking introverted things, but who won’t bring themselves to say it to anyone else. So they pretend not to like things to people who are also probably pretending not to like them. If only all these kabuki performers knew what one another really thought, they might enjoy themselves a bit more.

Why do they care what other people think? Are they worried others will assume they’re friendless losers if they just want to eat their ribeye in peace at the end of a long day? It turns out the extroverts, who we assume glide through life on the wings of their charisma and confidence, are the most insecure lot of all. They really do care what others think of them, to the point where they’ll deny themselves the pleasure of their own company. Is this not the opposite of confidence?

As I visit you monthly with this column, think of this space as a warm refuge for people who don’t apologise for choosing solitude – who would, most days of the summer, prefer a stroll around a quaint town to a beach jaunt. This is not a self-help group; it is more like an intimate private club. It is an oak room lined with books, the rain tapping its casement windows. I am your host.

Until next time, then, I have a challenge for you. If you’ve never eaten alone in a restaurant, try it. Some of you are sweating just thinking about it. If you’re one of those people, ask yourself: who really has “issues” here? The person who likes the occasional solitary meal, or the person who’d rather be covered in a viral rash than break bread with themselves? Stay hungry, my friends.

Robert Wargas is the Catholic Herald’s US CEO