8:30 PM September 20, 2022
I was doing a photo shoot at a great restaurant in Norwich last week, which is one of the best parts of my job (there’s always something to snack on!). I arrived at the end of the lunch service, intending to use the remaining daylight hours of the afternoon to photograph several dishes for use in newspapers, magazines and social media.
As I sat with a cup of coffee waiting for the last diners to finish their lunch, I spotted a lady having lunch at a single table, and I have to say I felt a pang of jealousy.
This may surprise regular readers, who will know that my idea of heaven is spending time around the dinner table with friends, enjoying great food and lively conversation. But once in a while, it’s wonderful to eat alone, selfishly enjoying a table for one.
It used to be that lone diners were given the worst tables, seen by restaurants as a loss of revenue – a lone diner invariably ended up on a table that could seat two people. But there are signs that attitudes towards those who want their own business are changing, and I was very pleased to see that the lady from the Norwich restaurant had been seated at a choice table, just next to the window.
I’m well aware that for millions of people, eating alone is the default position, and I suspect the thrill of doing so diminishes quickly if it happens every day. For those who are widowed or divorced, or who simply live a solitary existence, the lack of companionship at the dinner table can simply reinforce feelings of loneliness.
This is a particular problem for older people, who may not have the opportunities to get out and build their social circles that younger people find easier. According to Age UK, around one in 10 people over retirement age are or are at risk of being malnourished, either because they can’t get to the shops or because loneliness has deprived them incentive to cook good meals.
When my stepfather passed away 12 years ago, my wife and I feared that my stepmother would fall into the same trap. In addition to making sure she had plenty of company for at least some of her meals, we also signed her up for a weekly vegetable box delivery.
It was a clever plan: being from the generation of war who hates waste (we have so much to learn…), we knew that she would cook, if only to deplete the regular supply of ingredients.
I’m happy to report that at the age of 85, she still cooks great meals for herself every day, and a major topic of conversation on our weekly Sunday night Zooms is the menu of the week.
Cooking for one person can be a particular challenge, not least because supermarket pack sizes are invariably family-sized, and many cookbooks assume you’re cooking for at least four people. The solution to the buying problem is simple: try to buy your food from smaller independent shops (any decent butcher, for example, will be happy to cut portions for one person). And there are now plenty of other cookbooks aimed at single cooks.
But even for those of us who are blessed with large households or busy social lives, there’s still a magic to sitting down to eat alone once in a while. If you cook your own meal, you can be completely selfish about the ingredients you use, tweak the dish the way you like it, and not worry about whether someone else will find your cooking too spicy, too sweet. or just too weird.
But the ultimate solo luxury is that table for one at a favorite restaurant. According to restaurant reservations company Open Table, there was a 160% increase in solo diners in the four years to 2019 (unclear what effect Covid has had since).
Interestingly, research suggests that more of these solo diners are women than men, perhaps a reflection of a more accommodating attitude by dining establishments to make women dining alone feel more comfortable.
In France, the solitary client has always been well received and well treated, and this is fortunately the case here too. Solo diners are much more likely to be there for the food, to enjoy the cooking and, against all odds, to have fun.
So the next time you see someone at a single table, either reading a book or just people watching, don’t feel sorry for them; chances are they’re having a good old time.