Why Does Dining Alone Still Freak People Out?

Solo dining restaurants

Solo dining is a strangely divisive topic. Sometimes, when I go into restaurants and ask for a “spot for one”, I sense some awkwardness, which I find surprising in today’s world. In my eyes, it’s almost like going out to a restaurant or bar is a performance, where you’re your most polished self, and that self must have fabulous friends.

Being “alone” isn’t the desired quality in mainstream society. I feel like this starts from the very beginning of our lives; everyone wants to be part of a group of friends at every age and no one wants to be an outsider.

But I’ve reached a stage where I need to question what is actually ‘wrong’ with being an outsider. I feel the most myself when I’m alone. I like socialising, I love interacting with people, and I’m impartial to a bit of flirty banter. But even in new social situations, I feel most confident when I venture out alone.

This translates to dining experiences. There are few things I love more than going into a restaurant, sitting up at the bar, having a drink and something delicious to eat and soaking in the atmosphere.

During my first week living in Melbourne, I’d started a new job and just moved into a new house with two strangers, and I felt exhausted and overwhelmed. I’d finished a difficult day at my new job, and I decided to go for a walk around the city. I ended up at Embla (if you haven’t been, you must go), sitting at the bar in my work uniform with a glass of wine and some carpaccio. I remember letting out a big breath and thinking, “I’ve arrived”.

Photo: Embla

There’s something about restaurants that makes me feel safe and calm; like I’m in someone else’s house. I can let go and allow myself to be taken care of. There is always someone to talk to if you’re in the mood for banter. You can eat and drink. There’s usually amazing music and fantastic smells… it just tickles every sense.

I spent so much of my hospitality wage on eating and drinking in fabulous places, and I don’t regret a cent.

So then, it always confuses me when people frown at me dining alone and enjoying it. It might be an older couple in the restaurant staring me down, or one of the staff continuously asking if I’m waiting for someone, or even my friends, not understanding why I would’ve wanted to be on my own. I always say the best things happen when you’re alone. 

In Italy, I made some of my most amazing memories by going to bars in Florence and getting to know bartenders and restaurant owners who would take me to salsa clubs and late-night parties once they’d clocked off for the night.

Not only did they give me the most incredible dining experiences and local adventures, but they also gave me recommendations for things to do, people to visit and specialties to try. If you’re ever in a new place and want to get to know the locals, go to your nearest bar and order a dealer’s choice.

A former colleague Natasha Bazika says that, as a food writer, dining alone is an integral part of work.

“The people-watching is my favourite part,” she says. “Dining with someone means they always want to chat, which is nice, but I love dining in peace and quiet because I get to observe so much more dining alone. It helps with work. Most of my stories come from dining alone because if you bring someone, it can be hard to focus and take it all in.”

Bazika works as a freelance journalist, travelling all over the world. She spent her 22nd birthday in Antigua on a week-long trip for work. She was staying in a gorgeous resort full of rich people (tough gig, huh?), and almost everyone was in a couple. There were young women with older men, young hot, rich couples, older couples… the kind of people that just exist inside their own bubble.

Bazika was dining at the resort restaurants and bars so she could write some pieces on their food and booze offerings, and almost every night, people would come up to her and ask, “Sweetie, are you okay?”.

“It’s strange because everyone’s scared of dining alone, of being alone in general, I guess, but what you actually get from solo dining is this real sense of security,” she says.

“People, the staff mostly, know you’re there alone, and they make an effort to look out for you more than they would the average customer. You get to build a relationship with them, and you can actually make amazing friends and have the most amazing experiences.”

So much about society has changed in the last decade. Women have a newfound strength in being independent, and there’s been a restructuring of traditional relationships. Women are no longer seen to need a man by their side or to be only valued for their ability to accessorise a marriage with femininity. Strong, independent, and kick-ass women are being celebrated, and I think that with that, we all have less fear of being seen alone.

There has also been a shift in the hospitality industry. Never before have we had so many different styles of venues to choose from, especially in Australia. Under a decade ago, most of Australia’s best cocktail bars were in hotels. With the emergence of more venues came a growing interest in food, booze and dining out and, with that, a celebration of experimental and immersive dining experiences.

OpenTable’s dining insights from 2023 showed it was the year solo dining took off in Australia. According to OpenTable data, there was a 14% year-on-year increase — and it’s wasn’t just on quiet days of the week either. Fridays, Thursdays and Wednesdays (in that order) were the most popular days for Aussies to indulge in much-needed “me time.”

In simple terms, we’re less set in our ways. Sure, there are still people who love going to the same restaurant, drinking the same bottle of Shiraz and being served by the same waiter — and that’s okay — but younger generations are becoming increasingly more willing to step outside their comfort zone and try new things more often.

One of the biggest changes to solo dining in Australia is the emergence of the bar table. We have a large European influence in Australia,  visible through our growing hospitality offerings. Over the years, the European style has become more refined, and we find ourselves with some incredible restaurants that offer bar dining — sitting up at the bar for your meal — which encourages a solo dining experience.

My family comes from Italy, where sitting at a bar is a common way to eat. Especially in the bigger cities, where the houses are tiny apartments, and it’s cheaper to eat out, most people won’t eat a single meal at home. It’s a pop-in-and-out, have-a-spritz and a-bowl of pasta type deal, sitting or standing at a bar.

This style of dining has become increasingly popular in Australia. It’s perfect for a date, with one other friend or alone. One venue that does it seamlessly is Gerald’s Bar, which has been in Melbourne for 15 years and has a sister venue in San Sebastian, Spain. 

Its Melbourne venue is on leafy Rathdowne Street in Carlton North, and it’s a safe space for any diner, with incredible food, drinks, atmosphere and staff. It’s one of my favourite places to dine alone.

And I’m not the only one.

“We’re definitely a 90% regulars venue and so many of them frequently dine alone,” says Alice Diffey, the assistant manager at Gerald’s Bar. “It’s all about respecting the experience that our guests want to have, not the experience you want to give.”

“That’s how I like to think about it anyway. They’re coming into our house, and we want to make them feel comfortable and look out for them in the best way we can.”

When it comes to solo dining, Diffey reckons the stigma is changing as people become more interested in hospitality venues, the food, and the service and want to experience it for themselves.

“The way we eat has changed so much,” Diffey says. “It’s become way more common to eat small plates and tapas-like food than having a full main course to yourself. Most people would prefer six small plates to one big main. This style of dining is more relaxed, which makes people feel more comfortable about dining alone, as well as allowing them to try more than one thing on the menu.”

Diffey, myself and another staff member from Gerald’s, Nevin Blaythorne-Rae, caught up last week for wine over FaceTime. It was partly to talk about this article but mostly because I missed their beautiful smiling faces and impeccable banter.

“We’re the guardians of the vibe,” Blaythorne-Rae said of his role as a staff member at Gerald’s. “Especially when it comes to a female guest on their own. It’s our duty to preserve the space, make sure it’s a safe place and direct anything else out. With solo dining, it’s all about people feeling comfortable, and that’s what Gerald’s is.”

Photo: Gerald’s Bar

“Sitting up at the bar seats feels more casual, but also, there’s always someone to talk to behind the bar, which tailors the experience a bit.”

We all agreed that one of our favourite things to do is to restaurant and bar hop, popping into different venues for a drink and a snack and catching up with people behind the bar as well as keeping up with what people are serving. It’s an amazing way to spend a day off with yourself and experience your city or area.

We’re lucky that Melbourne is full of venues with that relaxed Euro-style bar service, where you can pop in spontaneously and have an incredible time.

As I mentioned, there’s still a bit of stigma around dining alone. It doesn’t make sense given how far we’ve come in society and hospitality. There are still traditional people and traditional venues that believe in the design of never being alone and making it tough to solo dining. It comes down to feeling comfortable on your own within yourself first.

If you’re inexperienced in dining alone and want to try it, you definitely should. I recommend starting small: go to a little neighbourhood bar or restaurant and sit at the bar with a book. Once you feel comfortable in that space, maybe walk around the area before you venture into the city at bigger and busier venues.

But trust me, there’s nothing more empowering than dining alone. You meet amazing people, try new and delicious things and have a newfound appreciation for people-watching.

Related: The Irresistible Allure of the Tasting Menu, and Why It’s Worth It

Related: Australia’s Top Sommeliers on Navigating a Wine Menu

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