What am I doing here? Why did I think this was a good idea? What am I trying to prove? Am I even hungry?
Those were some of the thoughts racing through my head as I went out for dinner by myself for the first time. I wasn’t ready for the judgement, the stares, the pity.
But, spoiler alert, these were all assumptions I made up in my head, as I came to realise later.
Eating alone at restaurants is one thing that many – even experienced – travelers struggle with. You try to gather up the courage to go to a local restaurant that serves traditional food, but somehow you end up hunting for snacks at the late-night store around the corner.
Not gonna lie, my first solo dinner was dreadful. It was a rainy evening in 2016 and I found myself in a village on the countryside in Kerry, Ireland. Up until then, I had always cooked for myself in Airbnb’s or ordered take out. But I had gone on this spontaneous Irish hiking trip without any cooking equipment, staying at B&B’s along the way. There was no supermarket in this village, no Subway sandwiches, no takeaway. No safe options.
There was one fancy hotel in this village that had a restaurant.
I had no choice but to go there. Solo.
Since this was the only restaurant in the village—and probably the surrounding area—the place was packed. I cautiously entered and sat down at the one table that was free, in the middle of the restaurant (of course). I quickly ordered some pasta. Sweaty palms? Check. Heart palpitations? Check. Feeling like an alien on a foreign planet? Double check.
With my fork violently shaking in my hand, I summoned up the courage to take my first bite. I could feel everybody’s eyes burning on me. Observing me. Judging me.
At least, in my mind. That’s how I experienced it. In reality, no one probably even cared that I was there alone. Some of them may have been surprised.
Or wondering where this odd tall lady had come from. Maybe they even thought I was brave. But in that moment, all I could think about was how other people viewed me, how pathetic they must think I am for sitting by myself.
I ate my spaghetti at lightning speed, left money on the table, did an anxiety-fueled power walk to the exit, and out the door I was. As I walked to my B&B for the night, I felt safe again but also mortified. I promised myself I would never eat alone in a restaurant ever again.
The next day I continued my journey to Glencar, my next stop on the Kerry Way. After hours and hours of hiking in the Irish rain, I finally came across a little pub on the side of the road. I got tempted.
There were tables outside, it felt less intimidating than the fancy hotel I had eaten at the night before. I went for it. I ordered a stuffed potato and chips at the bar and made my way to one of the tables outside. As I sat down, I could feel the Irish family next to me watching me. I immediately got struck with a sense of embarrassment again. But then something shifted in me and I said to myself No! Why would it even matter what everyone thought? I was hungry and I wanted to eat, dammit! I have just as much right to sit at a table, by myself, and enjoy a nice meal.
Bit dramatic, I know.
A few moments later, the family next to me actually invited me over to their table, and we ended up having a lovely meal together, drinking cider and talking about cultural differences and local legends.
So technically, I didn’t eat alone that time, but it did change something for me and since then, I have eaten by myself quite often.
Anxiety makes you feel like you’re running a race, but your competitors are imaginary. Most of the time, you’re only racing yourself. And there are so many things you can do to relieve the stress of eating by yourself. If you feel uncomfortable in the beginning, just sit at the bar and talk to the barman. Bring a book. Write in your diary. Look at photos you took during the day. And if all goes wrong, order a red wine.
As you get more and more comfortable with eating alone in restaurants, you’ll start to feel proud of yourself. You’re doing something that so many people are too scared to even try. You’ll eventually get there, and once you do, congrats! You have unlocked yet another achievement in the travel game.