I, like many strong, independent women I know, pride myself on not needing other people to create the life that I want. In the words of Destiny's Child, "Depend on no one else to give you what you want / ... I depend on me." So why then do I keep finding myself bitching about various restaurants I've not got around to visiting yet, simply because arranging dinner with other busy and powerful women can be a military operation and I've long tired of what amounts to expensive small talk over steak with strangers from dating sites?
Well, because it's easy to feel like a bit of a twat when you walk into some trendy ramen place and try to casually ask for a table for one, isn't it? But it shouldn't. If I can hold down a job in a competitive market, get through a full issue of the New Yorker before a new one arrives, or, you know, just keep my cat alive, then having dinner alone in a restaurant shouldn't really be such a big challenge.
In order to try to prove that dining alone is probably not the taboo we might think it is, I spent a week going to a variety of London restaurants, some casual, and some not so, entirely on my tod. The rules were: no books, no staring into my phone, and no ordering a swift starter before scuttling off like a scaredy-cat into the company of others. Here's how it went...
Where: East Dulwich Tavern
What's it like: A large local pub. Moderately busy for a Monday night, with a mixture of groups, couples, and a few other people on their own.
Solo-dining awkwardness level: 1/5
I must admit that I often come to this pub alone for pint and a bit of reading – it's relaxed, casual, and I'm usually in the company of other loners lurking around with a book and a beer, so intimidation levels here are low. The problem with the pub though comes when you need to order. Tonight it's busy enough that if I abandon my table to go to the bar, I risk losing it, but if I leave my stuff strewn across the seat to mark my territory while I'm away, I risk losing that too. I end up clinging nervously to my laptop as I wait at the bar with one eye on the table, which is guarded only by my coat.
Safely back in my seat, I inevitably end up tuning into the brilliantly awkward first-date conversation being had by the couple on the next table. He tells her he's moved to London for work, reeling off qualifications like he's writing a LinkedIn profile, before she ups the date-chat ante, listing all the cars she's ever driven (three Ford Kas, a Fiesta, and now a Puma, FYI) and asking him if he's downloaded Uber yet (he has, he thinks it's "alright"). It's like every soul-destroying Tinder date you wish you'd never bothered with and it makes me glad to be on a date with just myself. As I mop up the last of the buttery steak juice on my plate with a potato, I catch the eye of an old man sat alone reading the paper on the next table and think that he and I have got the right idea.
Where: Pedler, Peckham
What's it like: A cosy, bustling neighbourhood bistro. Currently the new place to be, and as such, packed.
Solo-dining awkwardness level: 2/5
Eating in the loner-friendly pub is one thing, but an actual restaurant, particularly a busy new one that everyone within five postcodes is trying to get a table in, is quite another. They're already fully booked when I call to make a reservation, so I'm resigned to having the awkward "table for one" conversation all over again IRL in the hope of getting one of the spots reserved for walk-ins. It's packed when I arrive just before 8pm but with only slightly raised eyebrows from the host, I bag a space at the end of bar alongside a few doe-eyed couples. Unlike last night, these seem to be people who give dating a good name, but I quickly lose interest in cursing their apparent happiness and they're certainly not taking any notice of me, so I'm quite relaxed, sitting in my corner and sipping on a lovely "Peckham Martini" while I decide what to eat.
Like many London restaurants, Pedler's menu is focused around smaller sharing plates, which for obvious reasons, poses a problem for the solo diner. I really want to try the English charcuterie, but unless I don't order anything else or admit that I'll waste a load, there's no point in ordering a massive plate of meat to myself. I can't decide if I feel like they're throwing me a bone or taking the piss with the option of a single meatball, but it turns out to be very good, and definitely perfect for one, so my only beef here is the good kind. Similarly, the larger sharing plates make for a suitably sized one-person main course, and by the time I tuck into crispy, juicy chicken thighs and a thick slab of polenta, drizzled with zingy scotch-bonnet sauce, I'm so deeply involved with how delicious it is that I completely forget being irked by my limited options, and I'm not sure I would notice a companion if I had one. When I finish though, I'm still desperate to tell someone how great it was, so naturally I tell the internet.
What's it like: A hip and trendy hotel restaurant where people hope to see and be seen. Modern, minimal, massive.
Solo-dining awkwardness level: 4/5
"You're the first one of your party here," the host at Hoi Polloi tells me as she leads me through the large, cavernous restaurant, which has a decor somewhere between a Swedish sauna and Don Draper's office, despite the fact that I called earlier that afternoon to book a table for one. "No, it's just me," I correct her, finding myself sounding apologetic in response to the perplexed look on her face.
Hoi Polloi is the kind of showy-as-fuck restaurant you'd expect to find at the Shoreditch outpost of New York's trendy Ace Hotel, and the exposure that low leather banquettes in a wide-open dining room allows is perfect for scanning the room for anyone "important" while sitting tall wearing a statement J.W. Anderson top and hoping to be spotted back. Not so perfect then if you're on your own and want to blend into the background, as the suspicious-eyed waiter who keeps peering over my table and the two men staring at me from the next table in jeans, suit jackets, and long hair they look way too old for seem to confirm. Having stashed my belongings on the chair opposite me, I realise I look like I'm on a date with a record I've bought earlier this afternoon, fitting of the tragic tableau I can tell my fellow diners think they're witnessing.
Funnily enough, I'm actually not the only person on my own – there are several men sitting by themselves who you can tell are staying at the hotel on business, not only because despite the still-freezing March temperature, they arrive without coats, but because their suburban short-sleeved shirts and high-street barber's haircuts in the sea of retro glasses and ironic jumpers make them stand out like your nan in Ibiza. They're perhaps the only people attracting more pitying glances than I seem to be in this weird cross between a Travelodge and Nathan Barley.
My food, a starter of cured salmon, beetroot, and horseradish cream followed by a whole lemon sole with clams and samphire, is as showy and elegant as that of most of the other diners, but delicious as it is, it's hardly involving, and I'm pretty keen to eat up and get out. This is the kind of food to be poked around at while your mind's elsewhere – it's not the main event because eating isn't really the point of coming to a restaurant like this. Maybe I'd return if I wanted to break up with someone over dinner without ruining any of my favourite restaurants, or if I owed a frenemy some face time, but I certainly wouldn't come back alone.
Where: Andrew Edmunds, Soho
What's it like: Small, cosy, romantic. A candlelit Soho institution.
Solo-dining awkwardness level: 2/5
This tiny, low-lit Soho bistro is the kind of place people go on dates in rom-coms in which they lean across the table, clutch hands, and stare into each other's eyes through the candlelight, and that's exactly what most of the other diners are doing when I arrive. I'm especially intrigued to find out if all the love that's in the air here makes me feel extra lonely or self-conscious, in the absence of a doting companion, but I'm pleased to discover that the romantic mood actually just adds to the cosiness of the place, and of course, people are far too concerned with each other to take any notice of the girl on her own in the corner.
That's not to say it's totally plain sailing. Again, I've pre-booked a table for one, but like yesterday, the waiter takes no notice of this fact and sits me down with two menus and a glass of water for both myself and my imaginary friend. I have to prompt him to take my order after attending to every other table in the room while taking no notice of me, for which he apologises and says he'd assumed I was waiting for somebody else. There's nothing snooty about his manner, and the service from here on in is friendly, welcoming, and efficient, but it just goes to show that lone diners can't be that commonplace, at least not in this restaurant, and as has mostly been the case all week, I'm left having to explain myself.
That minor awkwardness aside, though, Andrew Edmunds is exactly the kind of place I'd happily return for a meal alone, perhaps in retreat from the cold following an afternoon shopping in town, or after a particularly gruelling day at work when you need to relax but can't face talking to anyone.
Where: Polpo, Farringdon
What's it like: London's definitive small-plates restaurant. Fun and bustling on a Friday night, with a varied mix of people having casual post-work dinners.
Solo-dining awkwardness level: 3/5
Pleased with having just about conquered the sharing plate menu at Pedler earlier in the week, I decide to see if that success can be universally applied, and head to Polpo, the casual Italian mini-chain that is arguably responsible for almost every restaurant in London now refusing to serve people a full dinner on one plate.
Polpo is also a pioneer of the city's irritating trend for not taking reservations, so I hope that by taking up less space than a group, I've got the upper hand. It turns out I'm correct and I get a seat straightaway, albeit at the bar, despite the fact that it's a Friday night and the restaurant is packed. There's actually something really nice about going unnoticed and undisturbed while eating at the counter when you're on your own, I think to myself.
This time the sharing menu does prove to be a challenge – there's just so much choice and each small, simple dish seems intended to be enjoyed in conjunction with another. In the end I order just one plate of flank steak, mushrooms, and rocket, a dish that's been on Polpo's menu for yonks and which I've enjoyed many times alongside their perfect little meatballs and their beautifully crisp pizzettes. When a couple next to me ask what it is that I'm eating, I wistfully recommend some gnocchi and cod cheeks that I would ordered too, if I were accompanied, as well as telling them that the steak is as delicious as it always is.
As I scuttle off to the station after just 30 minutes of dining, making it my shortest meal of the week, I wonder if I'd be better off grabbing a quick burrito from the Mexican takeaway I pass next time I need to fill up before heading to the pub with my mates.
If you go to a restaurant by yourself and don't take a selfie in the toilets, can you prove you were even there?
After five solid days of having dinner by myself I'd be lying if I said it matched up to a meal with someone whose company I genuinely enjoy. But I can also hands down vouch for the fact that I'd rather have dinner by myself than some boring bastard off OkCupid, and I don't want to necessarily have to wait around for a friend to be available if there's a new place I really want to try before word gets out and a table there is harder to come by than clothes for the over-25s in Topshop.
Plus, sometimes when you finish work, you just fancy a drink, food you've not cooked, and a few more hours where you don't have to acknowledge your overflowing laundry basket or your housemate's dirty dishes, and why deny yourself that pleasure just because nobody's around to join you at the last minute? Or indeed, on those days when anything other than staring into space and picking over your own thoughts and a bowl of spaghetti someone else has made for you feels like too much effort.
Yes, dining alone can seem daunting, especially as you'll have to explain yourself now and then, and you do need to choose your destination well – preferably somewhere cosy, casual, and where the menu's designed for you to be able to enjoy one massive plate of food all to yourself – but at the end of the day, people mostly couldn't give a shit about anyone other than themselves. Restaurant staff just want to get their job done, and other diners will be wrapped up in each other, so you're likely to go undisturbed and unnoticed.
So if you're looking for me, I'll be at the bar of one of my favourite local pubs or restaurants, with a massive glass of wine, a bowl of chips, and not a care in the whole damn world.