The Fernweh-farer: Table for One
Updated: May 14, 2020
What real-world experience could approach a level of apprehension that rivals toeing the edge of a cliffside overlook for the acrophobic soul, or stepping in front of a hushed lecture hall for a public speaking event for the glossophobia sufferer? For many, it is the prospect of dining alone. Nothing like the feeling of unwelcome anxiety to kill off an appetite. While not blessed with an exotic-sounding name, this form of social phobia is very real for many people. While it may not often rise to a crippling and debilitating sense for most, it does for some with real health impacts. However, for a great many, the idea of a solo meal still leaves them with varying degrees of unnatural discomfort to feelings of sadness.
The shame is that it does make an otherwise pleasant experience, that of dining out, infinitely more stressful than it need be. I, for one, am a huge fan of having someone else prepare a great tasting meal for me. To my dismay, hours of watching entertaining cooking videos have done little to take my chef skills beyond “hit or miss” amateurism. There is also much joy and discovery to be consumed within the walls of neighborhood restaurants. To walk a few blocks and be transported to another region of the world through a combination of spices, cooking styles, and pairings are just too good to let the subconscious get in the way. I am an “always-on” advocate of the power and necessity of travel. While my ability to engage my passion is currently in storage like many others, this time allows me to stretch my expertise and appreciation for the art of travel. Hopefully, productive homebound skill building will leave me better prepared to conscientiously see the world when that capability resumes.
The transformative potential of leaving home and stepping into someone else’s existence drives understanding, openness, and gratitude. Unfamiliar cultures are intoxicating and the most universally sought after introduction for embracing what sets a place, and its people, apart is the cuisine. The surge of popular food culture and the elimination of barriers to span large distances (prior to the recent crisis) and explore exotic destinations has given rise to destination travel centered around food. Digging into a bowl of authentic beef noodles on the streets of Bangkok, pulling apart straight from the oven piping hot khachapuri after successfully elbowing to the counter of an underground bakery in Tbilisi, or biting into perfectly ripe Greek olives in the centuries-old market stalls of Athens - these are frequently among our most cherished memories upon return. The indelible flavors and full-frontal sensory attacks that we close our eyes and mouthwateringly recall.
Despite the setback and current travel climate, in general these pursuits have become more accessible than at any moment in human history. The reality of enjoying breakfast in your local hometown and then tucking into a candlelit bowl of cacio e pepe in a secluded Trastevere trattoria overlooking the Tiber all in the same day - it still boggles the mind. Leave it to the pundits to hotly debate an unnecessary choice between the benefits of group versus solo travel. Each side stridently attempting to make a “winner-take-all” case on the superiority of one approach pitted against the other. The oral argument framing one experience as superior for the passport carrying defendant. Suggesting that to embrace the company of many versus the solitude of oneself, or vice versa leaves one more full or empty upon return. This debate is a misuse of valuable time. Time better spent finding an excellent flight deal on your next destination, or invested in some tutorials on the local language so one better knows how to order another round in Italian (that would be "Un altro giro, per favore!"). Truth being, wanderlust is best exemplified in taking actions that allow one to go where they most covet in as timely and efficient a manner as is feasible.
This “carpe diem” approach to travel frequently steers me to solo expeditions. I always remain open to companionship on my trips in the form of friends and family, but I refuse to let schedules outside of my control dictate my timelines. The draw to wander the alleys of Tokyo or climb the stoned steep hills of the Albaicin neighborhood in Granada over the course of a holiday hold too much sway for others to cast a veto. However, solo trips make the inevitable specter of dining alone unavoidable, and this is something that remains a sweat-inducing conundrum for many. I will caveat that this fear has never left me sleepless before arriving at a new destination - for that I blame the crying baby two rows behind me on the flight (oh, how I would take an aisle seat with a screaming baby right now!). Still, I am aware and sympathetic to the social anxiety and lack of normalcy that surfaces when sliding into a restaurant booth or high-top with no one across from you. So, as someone who has traveled solo more than as an ensemble, I aim to share some advantageous strategies that can make any lone vagabond more comfortable when it is time to dig in. An unexpected bonus, when travel is allowed to resume, tools for social-distanced meal consumption may prove useful in the initial stages.
Always eat at the bar if it is an option. This may seem like basic guidance, but tried and true logical approaches we often apply while in the comforts of our own hometown escape us in a strange atmosphere where dialect and design are foreign. In most countries I have visited, the bar remains a sanctuary for solo diners to seek refuge. Often rewarding a patron with slightly speedier service, a cocktail menu that can help ease the communicative nerves and, frequently, other solo diners to either side. If nothing else, you will likely find a chatty bartender trained in the art of awareness and willingness to engage in some small talk. Bonus that these sociable mix-masters are also willing to give you the true scoop on what to experience while visiting. Listen to their advice and heed it! Just make certain you have a few essential phrases at the ready and do not over-imbibe. No one likes “that guy” slouched over and mouthing off in a language no one understands.
Leverage a food tour. This is my favorite method to engage with other food-obsessed travelers and familiarize oneself with the cuisine canon unique to a new spot. The most worthwhile food tours will present some background and history of the roots of the notable dishes that will add richness to the experience, so do a little research and read reviews. Schedule a tour very early in the trip — like, a first full day early. This will ground you with a basic understanding of the ordering protocol, provide you a chance to practice some of those phrases you “learned” while the plane was taxiing to the gate, and introduce you to a few spots you may prefer to return to on the trip. Bonus, by striking up a conversation and befriending other group members and fellow culinary enthusiasts, you enhance your odds of finding dining companions for the remainder of your stay.
Utilize an immersive service that specifically focuses on group dining. Services like EatWith, which launched in 2014, have the straightforward goal of providing authentic dining experiences and culinary discovery to travelers “one food experience at a time.” With operations in over 130 countries, travelers can sign-up to join dining experiences, cooking classes or food tours. Everything from a traditional Spanish dinner in the comfort of a family’s garden in Madrid to a farmer’s market tour in Budapest that dives deep on local produce and street foods. Unfortunately, I discovered this service late in my last trip (at the recommendation of a fellow solo diner!) and was not able to book a local dining experience - but I absolutely expect to book one wherever my next journey takes me. Already, similar immersive experiences are proliferating across travel services like Airbnb and others. Seek communal, or casual, dining establishments. The contemporary design elements of long wooden picnic-style tables with diners seated in nearby proximity to parties not their own is not limited to the hip neighborhoods of the States. Communal dining has found acceptance in neighborhoods across the world and, with the emergence of crowdsourced restaurant reviews along with no shortage of accompanying interior photographs, it is easy to locate these spots that give way to a more relaxed setting. Think that open floor plan layout at your office that you hate…but only now you love it because you’re enjoying a plate of caponata and a glass of red instead of sending emails and averting your coworkers! Also, consider casual dining establishments that coat check the fuss but still deliver the fine. It has become common for cafes and gastropubs to extend hours and fill-out menus with more robust offerings throughout the day.
Bring along a silent “companion.” While I certainly encourage savoring the experience and flavors on the local cuisine, that does not mean that inevitable downtime of waiting to order, waiting for your meal to be prepped, and then waiting for the check, need be unproductive time. Bring along that novel on the location you are halfway through or a notebook to plan for the following day. Plus, if writing or journaling is your thing, a notebook allows for real-time capturing of your sensory experience and tasting notes. Carry a “marker.” This is an addendum to the last piece of advice. When dining solo, you lose the benefit of a physical presence at your table or seat should you need to step away for a moment. The last thing you want if an unintended spill or splash requires a quick run to wash-up is to return and find the unknowing waitstaff has cleared the remainder of your plate and seated the next guest. By having a book, journal or bag along with you - it can stay behind as a visual reminder that you have not split without paying your bill. Keep things in perspective. Above all, remember this. Most people are consumed with…themselves. While we all have unavoidable thoughts run through our minds that “everyone is looking and wondering what is wrong with me,” that in itself is only proof of this fact. Most diners surrounding you are more worried about that meeting they have tomorrow morning, is the babysitter ransacking the fridge or, most likely, what their strategy is for avoiding the check when it arrives at the table. Try to enjoy the moment and be mindful that the only one really paying attention to you is yourself.
It is entirely possible that none of the solutions above may seem attractive. Or, perhaps, the particular mood or exhaustiveness of a day exploring a new city runs counter to immersing oneself again in the presence of others. In this case, fully engage yourself in the sense of enjoyment of local cuisine the way most actual locals would - with a meal at home. A favorite, and most economical, approach of mine to enjoying authentic constructed delicacies is a stop into the neighborhood grocer, or street market, upon arrival. Stock up a basket with a few perishables, take a few chances on interesting looking items with barely discernible labels and inquire with the shop purveyor for what they recommend. Using these tactics, I am generally able to cobble an impressive menu. An in-home preparation is also where my inclination for booking home-sharing services, like Airbnb, truly delivers. Modestly stock up the kitchen with some meats, cheeses, a loaf and bottle of wine, and you are set. Repurpose that mid-day recess, or a relaxing evening after exploring a city, to savor you proudly foraged bounty.
Tear into a just-baked baguette streaked with velvety rich French butter. Pair that with a silky pâté, sliced jambon, and a glass of fragrantly clean Bordeaux. Carry it all to the terrace of your accommodations overlooking the bustling avenues of the Left Bank, or the serpentine slopes of Montmartre. Wrapped in this orchestra of chattering street sounds below, soak in the sights of the surrounding amber lights of nearby windows that resemble summer fireflies at sundown - granting inevitable peeks of local neighborhood still-life. Breathe in the enticing aroma of the unapologetically aromatic beef stew being produced by the resident below. Comfortably slide into the memories of all you encountered and learned that day in whichever glorious place you are temporarily calling home and recognize that solo dining or not, you are never actually alone.