Eating out on your own can be an uncomfortable experience – or a treat. Here’s how to do it well.
I hate eating out alone. I appreciate a good portion of the people reading this will have no qualms about chowing down in public on their lonesome, but if you’re like me – i.e. a loose collection of neuroses and anxieties tenuously held together by duct tape, chewing gum and unfounded optimism – it just feels a bit… unsavoury. Like you’re doing something faintly shameful.
What if ‘they’ think you’re some kind of sinister loner with a taxidermy collection who sleeps in his dead mum’s nightie? What if ‘they’ tilt their heads at you sympathetically while secretly hoping you’ll have a messy public breakdown because they think you’ve been stood up by your date?
Worst of all, what if ‘they’ think you’re some kind of wanky food blogger type?
In reality of course, no-one cares. The nebulous pitchfork wielding mob inside your head that scrutinises your every waking moment doesn’t actually exist.
Over the last couple of years I’ve had to eat out alone a fair bit thanks to various work trips, so I’ve gotten much better at it. For example, my last job involved regular visits to That London, with the odd overnight stay in Stratford. No, not the Shakespeare one. The stabby one.
Dining options nearby aren’t great. Well, that’s not strictly true; there’s the Westfield Centre after all – a vast, obscenely shiny monument to buying crap you don’t need that looks like the set for a Minority Report sequel. All the big chains are there, with Shake Shack, Nandos, Pizza Express et al all as present and as correct as they’re ever going to be.
I’ve had a few lazy meals there – there’s something comforting about the speed and security of a chain for the lone diner. You know what you’re getting, you know how ordering and paying works, and you know that you’ll be finished and out the door in under an hour.
However, and it’s a big however, chains tend to be massive, bright, open-plan affairs, with no dark corners for those of a Billy No-Mates persuasion to hide in. Pick the wrong table and you’ll end up feeling like you’re eating in a Roman Colosseum while the great unwashed peer down on you expectantly waiting for pain and humiliation to ensue.
The last time I had a burger at GBK in Westfield there were so many eyes on me I considered finishing my meal by standing on my chair shouting “Are you not entertained!?”
Instead of succumbing to the lure of the familiar, you’ve got to find somewhere a bit more interesting if you actually want to enjoy eating out alone – and it is possible to enjoy it. On my next trip to Stratford I found The Print House – a tidy little independent industrial-chic styled beer and burger place.
You may have noticed a theme here – burgers are great for solo eaters. They can be wolfed nice and quickly when required, and they’re hard to get too wrong. The Print House’s burger was good, solid stuff – coarse ground, still a little pink in the middle and served with a generous helping of jalapenos.
Even better, as it was early doors when I arrived, I managed to secure the gold standard of lone-dining seating – an entire booth to myself. This opened up all sorts of people watching opportunities, with highlights including a tense looking, oddly whispery Eastern European couple on a table opposite who may or may not have been Russian sleeper agents.
Speaking of Eastern Europe, I had another great lone dining experience during a work trip to Vilnius in Lithuania. After several days of coach journeys I’d grown so heartily sick of the people I was travelling with that I decided to eat extra early – the perfect excuse not to be sociable later. I rocked up to the hotel restaurant at about 3pm and was literally the only person there other than the staff.
The hotel itself wasn’t going to win any Trip Advisor awards – it was decorated like the inside of a Soviet T-72 tank and located next door to a terrifying-looking grafitti-plastered strip club – but the dining experience was great. The waitress taught me how to say a few words in Lithuanian (though not quite enough to understand the swearing from the kitchen, which increased noticeably after I ordered), and the food was thoroughly decent. I think it was pork, but in retrospect it might have been badly behaved strip club punter.
But of course, you don’t have to schlep all the way to the Baltic to enjoy eating on your tod. There are plenty of places in Cardiff that possess at least some of the key elements to a good lone dining venue; people watching potential, speed and (obviously), great food.
For people watching, you’ll be hard pressed to beat Uncommon Ground on a Saturday morning. Plenty of window seats looking out onto the arcade, ace coffee and a respectable line in hipster staples like avocado on toast (though I do wish they wouldn’t put cream cheese in it). Get there early enough and you can safely ensconce yourself in the window for an hour with your Kindle and pretend not to be nosing at passers-by.
The Grazing Shed has you covered when it comes to speed; it’s not my favourite burger place in Cardiff (that would be Burger Theory at Kongs) but by god it’s the quickest. I’ve literally been beaten back to my table by my burger in the past. You’ve got a cracking viewpoint on St Mary Street, so there’s plenty of gawping potential too.
But head, shoulders, knees and toes above the rest is Curado Bar. The latest in Cardiff’s suddenly quite long line of Spanish eateries, Ultracomida‘s first pub is absolutely blinding when it comes to eating alone.
First of all, at least half the place feels designed just for lone diners. The long row of barstools is ideal for perching inconspicuously at with a book, and makes for much easier ordering than sitting at a table. Which is good, because you’ll be ordering a lot.
Curado specialises in pintxos (or pinchos if you like – I felt like giving my ‘x’ key a bit of a workout). Pintxos are small, cheap tapas-style snacks that are popular in Northern Spain. They’re bang-on brief for those flying solo – ready in minutes, and eaten in seconds.
They also happen to be bloody amazing. I tried four, and I couldn’t pick a favourite. The Cecina y queso de cabra (smoked air dried beef and goat’s cheese), Matrimonio (anchovies with salsa verde), Tortilla y allioli (potato omelette with garlic mayo) and Escalivada y queso de cabra (sort of a grilled ratatouille with aubergine and goats cheese) were all stellar.
They’re a bit of a challenge to eat until you get the hang of it; a fellow lone diner sat nearby managed to fling his into the air while trying to saw through the super-crusty bread (top marks for not falling to your knees and wailing with rage, anonymous man), but as soon as you realise it’s ok just to pick them up and stuff them in your gob you’ll be laughing.
There’s plenty worth drinking while waiting for your next helping, too. The Torro is definitely the most interesting of the two house beers – the boozy hum of the sherry barrels it’s conditioned in helps it stand up to the powerful but not-unpleasant onslaught of garlic from some of the pintxos.
It’s proof that if you pick the right venue, eating on your own can be a treat rather than a terror – in fact, after a couple of hours at Curado you’ll probably never want to share again…
Do you enjoy a lonesome lunching or are solitary suppers a sore subject? Let me know in the comments below or over on Twitter at @fuudblog