Life / Food

Table for one: Five ways to improve your solo dining experience

Take it from a professional diner: there’s no shame in eating alone. In fact, restaurant critic Amy Pataki says it's one of life’s great pleasures.

Reservations for parties of one have grown by 85 per cent in Canada since 2015, according to OpenTable.

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Reservations for parties of one have grown by 85 per cent in Canada since 2015, according to OpenTable.

One is not the loneliest number when it comes to dining.

OpenTable reservations for parties of one have grown by 85 per cent in Canada since 2015.

These findings, published in November, mirror our country’s changing demographics. Statistics Canada says the number of single-person households now outnumber those of couples with children, making up 28.2 per cent of households, the highest share since 1867. Also, adventure travel company Intrepid Travel last year reported a 24-per-cent jump in solo travelling.

When it comes to solo dining, OpenTable reported 43 per cent of bookings are for dinner and 30 per cent for lunch. The restaurant reservation company also said Canadian solo diners book the majority of their tables Monday to Friday (78 per cent), saving the weekends for dining with others.

“The stigma surrounding dining solo may be starting to lift,” OpenTable said.

Take it from a professional diner: There’s no shame in eating alone. It is one of life’s great pleasures, letting you concentrate all your senses on the experience.

Here’s a sensory guide to getting the most out of a solo meal.

Touch

When I eat alone, I don’t always sit at the bar, which no new Toronto restaurant is built without.

I enjoy sitting at a table for two, using the second chair as a perch for my coat and purse and revelling in the extra elbow room.

Take an inventory of texture and comfort. Run your fingers over the tabletop. Take in the feel of what fabric, if any, covers the surface. Centre yourself on the chair, noticing if the seat is padded or hard, shallow or deep. Lean back and test the lumbar support. Heft the cutlery; are the handles big enough to grip comfortably?

Being mindful this way reduces stress, research shows.

Sight

Without the distraction of a companion (or a book), solo diners can soak up the sights.

Restaurants are great theatre. Fellow diners often exhibit fascinating behaviours. Recently, while eating tacos alone, I watched a 3-year-old boy run shouting along the restaurant’s communal banquette. He stopped as soon as his parents handed him a smartphone. I chuckled, knowing who trained who.

Of course, there are also the sights on the plate. Being alone lets one pay extra attention to visuals such as colour, sauces, garnishes — all of which are now top of mind for chefs thanks to Instagram.

Hearing

Dining alone doesn’t have to be lonely. Talk to fellow diners at the bar (read social cues first). Chat with the server or bartender.

Me, I listen to the conversations around me out of simple human interest. I’ve overheard talk about home renovations, bad bosses, difficult in-laws and sales commissions. Just last month, I listened to a group of friends try to figure out the difference between Jamie Oliver and John Oliver.

Consider this a word of warning: Public restaurants are not the place for private conversations. Be discreet, do as my husband suggests and never use anyone’s full name.

Smell

Now that neuroscience has shown that human noses can rival those of dogs, it’s time to unleash our sense of smell in restaurants.

The solo diner is in the best position to do so, master of her/his table. Smell the flowers in the vase and the sourdough in the bread basket. Sniff that glass of wine like a sommelier. Run that aromatic rosemary branch garnish under your nose. Inhale the garlicky steam from a bowl of clams. Breathe in the cinnamon rising from a warm apple dessert. Aroma impacts our mood; studies show a link between depression and anosmia, the loss of the sense of smell.

Don’t be self-conscious. Your body will thank you.

Taste

The biggest payoff in eating alone comes when the food is in the mouth.

Without a companion, I can focus on taste and texture. I’m not rushing to finish a bite to hold up my end of the conversation. It’s just me and the food, an unfiltered connection between my taste buds and the kitchen’s work. This comes in handy for a food critic even though tradition dictates I take along at least one other person to sample more food.

Dining solo can be just as rewarding for everyone else. And it lets one enjoy the best company of all: Oneself.

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