Today, I’m going to eat a meal with Me, Myself and I. For some, this simple statement flutters the heart with anxiety, and their palms produce a palpable clamminess.
But why? The ability to taste is an extremely intimate sensation individual as fingerprints. Choosing to eat alone is a chance to indulge those receptors that pepper the tongue and cheeks.
Alisha Johnson chooses to eat by herself at least once a week for just that reason: so she can satisfy her own palate. Johnson, a 35-year-old history of education graduate student at the University of Washington, arrived in Seattle only a few months ago from Oregon.
“You can try to find a consensus with people but if you keep doing that, you usually end up doing what they want to do,” she said, sitting with her back to the wall at Café on the Ave in the University District with a large bowl of oatmeal in front of her. “So now I just do what I want to do.”
A social taboo?
According to Arden Clise, an etiquette expert with Clise Etiquette in Seattle, the solo-diner oddity is often hyped out of proportion.
“The stigma is usually in the single-diner’s mind,” Clise said. “Mr. or Ms. Solo should walk into the restaurant with confidence and feel that he or she should be treated with the same courtesy and respect a group of diners would be bestowed. Rather than saying, ‘Just one,’ say, ‘A table for one.’ In other words, don’t be embarrassed that you are one person.”
Arnold Chon, a 23-year-old who works for IndieFlix in Madison Park, disagrees.
“It seems weird. There’s a social taboo on it,” he said. “Eating is a social thing by nature, and when you go alone, I wonder, ‘What are you doing there, eating by yourself?’”
“I don’t understand why there is a stigma,” said Steve Wedlund, the 56-year-old manager of My Favorite Deli. His deli is perfectly designed for the single diner: Stools line large windows that give customers a head-to-toe view of people bustling up and down Brooklyn Avenue Northeast in the U-District.
“It’s a small place, so the people who regularly dine here eat alone,” Wedlund said. “Everyone’s got to eat, and you’re not always around your friends or feel like talking. Sometimes you just want to sit and relax.”
The desire to sit and relax is the motivation for Charles Chamberlin, the senior associate dean of the University of Washington Libraries, for eating lunch alone three times a week.
“I have a fairly hectic day on the phone, e-mail and with people coming into the office,” he explained. “So, during lunch, I generally like to get away and do my own thing.”
His “own thing” includes choosing a university cafeteria and grabbing a copy of The New York Times to read. The clamor of students talking and the squeal of wet rubber soles is all part of the experience.
But for Jessica Chin, a senior biology major at the University of Washington, it’s all about the restaurant host’s first question: “How many people are in your party?”
“It would be kind of awkward to be like, ‘Oh, it’s just me,’” she said. “I feel like after that, there is already an awkwardness that is set up.”
To avoid this moment of embarrassment, Clise said, “The hostess or maître d’ should ask, ‘A table for one?’” instead.
According to Rob Shockley, a 45-year-old who sells groceries to restaurants and hotels, solo diners should not feel uncomfortable.
“When I was a waiter and bartender, it never bothered me,” he said. “Folks that are dining alone tend to wrap it up pretty quick and tip you well if you take good care of them.”
And with 25 years in the restaurant business, Shockley has noticed a difference in the number of solo diners.
“I think it’s a more common thing to do now. People are a lot more mobile, they are new to town and there’s no big deal to showing up by yourself,” he said. “Over time, restaurants have become friendlier toward the single diner.”
Shockley, who is married, said he dines solo for lunch four or five times a week. During this time, he prefers talking to restaurant employees, reading the newspaper or working on his computer.
But according to Clise, there is etiquette for both servers and solo diners alike.
“The etiquette for dining — whether alone or in a group — is to not have anything on the table that is not related to dining, with some exceptions,” Clise said. “Someone dining alone should not read a book or look at their Smartphone while eating, but they could read a book [or their] Smartphone or look at some business papers before the meal is served.”
“Lastly, the restaurant staff should not rush Ms. Solo diner,” Clise said: Take the time to enjoy yourself and enjoy the food — that is what eating is all about.
What are they thinking?
However, Chin finds it “a little more peculiar” when someone older than a university student is dining alone, particularly if it happens to be “at a more fancy restaurant.”
Arnold Chon agrees: “When they are older, I kind of imagine them being weird and introverted and someone who dislikes people. If they are reading a paper or something, I will be like, “Why don’t they have someone to eat with?”’
Yet, Chamberlin has a wife, children and grandkids. Lunch is his time during the day to relax and read the news, he said.
Johnson, on the other hand, is younger than Chamberlin and is new to town. Often, she prefers dining alone.
“If I go out and eat alone, it’s not necessarily that I want to be picked up on or have someone come sit down with me,” Johnson said. “I like someplace that I can kind of just fade in and be there without worrying about it.”