I often find myself traveling alone. Whether it’s a short trip to Los Angeles or a longer one to Barcelona, my itineraries are often just for one. And as a lone rider who travels for the food (as many of us at AFAR do), it’s awkward to sit at a table without a hungry partner-in-crime. That’s why I don’t do it—I eat at the bar. And I love it.
It wasn’t always that way. Eating alone in public used to terrify me. Maybe it was the vestige of high-school cafeteria insecurities. Maybe it was a fear of boredom. Maybe I couldn’t stand the thought of talking to strangers while stuffing my face. But it took me a long time to come to the conclusion that being alone, in general, is OK. And, like so many people, I came to that conclusion in Paris.
I’d drifted to Paris to contemplate breaking up with a boyfriend I was living with back in New York. A few of those nights were spent with a girlfriend from college, roasting chicken and drinking wine in her flat or eating deliciously clichéd French food at neighborhood bistros; but a majority of the nights, I was on my own. That first night of wild freedom in the City of Light, I stepped into the glow of those famous streets—and I panicked. I ducked into the first bistro I saw, about sixty paces from my friend’s apartment building.
There I was, planted on a leather stool, elbows on the cold steel bar, my iPhone in airplane mode to avoid erroneous charges and nothing to busy myself with. So, I did something that may seem bold in our tech-dominated world: I cast my eyes up. I looked around at the restaurant, which—when I listened in with my limited knowledge of French—seemed to be filled with only friends and family of the owners. It was stark and more modern than a typical French bistro, with clean lines and not a wicker chair in sight. The uncharacteristically friendly bartender knew little English, and we laughed our way through our broken sentences, both tickled that we could understand each other through bits and pieces of broken phrases, strung together like a preschooler’s pasta-and-beads necklace. I trotted out of the restaurant two hours later, reeling from that human connection, full from coq au vin, and drunk from a bottomless glass of Burgundy.
I was converted, a junkie for that high of spontaneous conversation. I’d steal away from work on weeknights to take a seat at restaurants around downtown New York for a solo glass of wine, and then end up doing shots with the bartender or chatting with a business man about the rooftop farm he planned to start in Brooklyn. One of my favorite solo meals was at Kin Khao, a trendy Thai restaurant in San Francisco—the woman next to me was training to be a cook in the kitchen and was tasked with trying the menu in its entirety. And guess who got to share with her? Yours truly.
Aside from the obvious perks of dining solo at the bar—getting a little special treatment (or pity, maybe?) from the bartender—it’s a rare opportunity to put your night, or day, or life, into the reckless hands of chance. With a life so manicured, so planned out, so Google Map-able, how often is it that we can truly let go of the wheel and offer the driver’s seat to the unknown? It can also be a moment to listen to the conversations, observe the staff, and become a fly on the wall in the tiny, complex ecosystem that is a restaurant. It’s at once an anonymous and a vulnerable position. And it totally makes you feel alive.
Or, when you find yourself looking for a meal by yourself, you can take out your iPhone. That way, you’ll never eat alone.