Do you dread saying these words? Or do you enjoy dining alone? Ritu Raizada meets some people who love the freedom of solo dining, and others who cringe
at the thought of it.
For many people, dining is much more than simply chomping through a meal like a horse with its head in a chaff bag. Mealtime is a time for conversation and reflection, a time for sharing the company of a loved one and regaling others with anecdotes. All this fuses into an experience of a lingering taste of joy.
Not surprisingly, dining out too has evolved in a similar fashion. Indeed, in practically every culture it's a social activity enjoyed by the family, relatives and friends.
Until recent decades, it was rare for anyone to eat in a restaurant alone.
It just wasn't the done thing. It was one of those social no-nos. And if by chance someone flouted convention, the individual was regarded with curiosity, annoyance, contempt and sometimes pure pity. (Oh, poor thing. Has he no one to break bread with? Tut tut.)
Times certainly have changed. The rising popularity of solo travel, the crush of hectic lifestyles and an increase in the number of singletons has meant that lifestyle changes are inevitable.
Time is at a premium as is privacy. MyTime could just as well be at a corner table overlooking a beautiful patch of lawn or the Creek and enjoying a meal of your choice in pleasurable solitude.
What's more, no one looks twice at you. If they do, it's probably out of envy.
Yet many solo diners still feel uncomfortable. They feel as though all the people in the restaurant are staring at them or feeling sorry for them.
"I don't quite understand why a solo diner would feel uneasy," says Dr Shurong Jiang Mandaraki, general practitioner and acupuncturist, Dubai Healthcare City.
"Maybe it's just that I have just become comfortable doing things alone and don't think twice about dining solo or going out on a long drive by myself.
"In any case, my advice for anyone who feels embarrassed about dining alone in a restaurant is to try to let go of this outdated fear and enjoy the solo dining experience.
"Honestly, no one else is giving that empty chair at your table a second thought. They're not wondering what's wrong with you that you have to eat out by yourself, so why should you?"
The travel connection
Eating solo can be both a challenge and a joy, says former Dubai resident Uwe Wriedt, director of passenger sales, Lufthansa, Cologne.
"With an experience of 25 years in the aviation business, I have travelled quite a bit - from Washington DC to Paris and Geneva to Minsk, Belarus, St Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Russia, Casablanca and other places," he says.
As a result, he dines solo frequently when overseas, which gives him time and space to sit back and appreciate a country's culture and cuisine.
Indeed, doing this opens a window to another culture. He notes the social aspect of dining out in a group, particularly in the Middle East, but says solo dining has other advantages.
"Eating out alone is a very good way to relax," says Wriedt. "The best thing is that you get to enjoy and savour the real taste of the food served.
"Normally, when one is eating with other people, (one's) mind is engrossed with chatting and catching up with others. That's how the taste is missed. Sometimes you do not even remember what exactly had been on your plate."
Do you have DDSS?
If the thought of uttering the words "table for one" makes you cringe, you probably have DDSS (dread of dining solo syndrome).
One person who definitely has DDSS is 27-year-old Sameh Zienaldeen, branch manager, The Body Shop,
Ras Al Khaimah.
"I come from a family of seven siblings," he says. "I am the last person who would ever want to sit in a fine dining restaurant and eat alone! The very thought of eating without someone to keep me company makes me shudder! I think I'd rather just grab a quick bite and make a move.
"This is the reason why in my university days (in the US), I really suffered. Unless I had a college chum to keep me company, I couldn't eat properly. I would then eat for the sake of formality. There was no hunger, no urge, no taste and no satisfaction!"
Dr Mandaraki views solo dining as unavoidable. "Sooner or later, everyone faces the challenge of dining out alone. So eating out should be something you look forward to, to revive your spirits," she says.
However, many people forego the chance to explore new restaurants, sample new flavours and meet new people because of their fear.
On the other hand, others savour the pleasure of dining alone. Without being under pressure of being a perfect host or having to make sparkling conversation, a meal alone can be a comfortable stretch of silence in an otherwise hectic day.
Some enjoy watching people.
Others seize the opportunity to catch up on light reading or note taking. "Dining alone means you can eat what you
want, when you want and at whatever pace suits your fancy," says Dr Mandaraki.
"To be honest, I feel, a table for one satisfies the hunger for a little 'me time'. This is why, almost three to four times a week, particularly after a hard day, I set out to luxuriate at a table for one at a restaurant. Knowing that the dishes will come and go, I look forward to taking my seat and dining in silence."
A relaxing interlude
On Friday's request Wriedt recently dined solo at Sezzam, Mall of the Emirates. He switched off his mobile phone, something he rarely does normally, relaxed and soaked up the ambience.
"It was wonderful - I had the pleasure to enjoy the available time just and only to enjoy the food," he says. "I still remember the taste of that excellent salmon wrapped in a hot banana leaf."
Wriedt says he loves eating at home with his family and enjoys dinner at 8pm sharp - no doubt a difficult thing to manage when dining out with others! He says that sometimes dining solo overseas can become an unpleasant experience.
"In some countries, eating alone stands for an invitation to others to come and join and talk to you," says Wriedt.
"The worst experience I ever had was when I was joined (unexpectedly) by a chatterbox and I was definitely not pleased. After a long, exhausting day of travel, all I wanted was a quiet meal."
In some countries, a solo diner is promptly escorted to the worst table in a restaurant, says Wriedt.
"They are called 'cat tables'. This means you are squeezed into a side corner located next to the toilet ... if this happens, I encourage everyone not to accept these tables."
Dr Mandaraki also has advice for people dining alone in unfamiliar countries. "Keep in mind that in other cultures, the rules on dining alone can be different," she advises.
"In some places, if you're a woman alone at a restaurant, that's a pretty good sign that you're looking for something else. While I wouldn't allow someone else's predilections to get in the way of your own fun, it can be helpful to be aware of them so that you'll have that backhand ready should you need it."
Solo female diners
Some women feel awkward dining alone, but Dr Mandaraki says they should take the leap and make the most of the experience.
"Taking yourself out for a meal (and letting someone else do the dishes) is a wonderful treat, and not one that you should avoid over superficial concerns," she says. "You can always bring reading material with you to avoid those glances and stares.
"Or maybe listening to music on your MP3 player will keep you occupied. But then, the whole purpose of savouring the meal with undivided concentration will be defeated."
Another alternative is to sit there and study your surroundings, she says.
"Every eating outlet has its own character and once you pay attention to the details, it won't be long until you get a feeling that you do not need any reading material on hand.
"To me, reading in a restaurant seems downright rude. I mean, here you are in a restaurant that the owner
is proud to have furnished in a tasteful manner and you're spending dinner time trying to immerse yourself in someone else's fantasy world. How inappropriate."
Dr Mandaraki has enjoyed solo dining ever since her first trip outside her homeland.
"I remember my first trip outside of China," she says. "My first eating out experience was so relaxing, so absolutely wonderful, I made it a point to go out more often ... to spend some 'me time'.
The important thing, Dr Mandaraki stresses, is to "try not to be self-conscious".
And even if you do happen to snort your drink up your nose then spray it all over the white linen tablecloth, you'll probably laugh about it later!
"But seriously, people are really not all that interested in you; they are caught up in their own lives. In fact, one of the real pleasures of dining alone is the opportunity to (discreetly) observe others. You see everybody: from teenagers on their very first date to married couples who wish they were still single.
"When I dine alone, I often see people observing me from the tables adjacent to mine. There I am: an adult woman, alone, content, enjoying a top-rate meal, all by myself ... with someone else doing the dishes. It just doesn't get much better than that!"
Of course, one benefit of solo dining is - more personal attention from the waiter. Even for the waiter, a solo diner is a refreshing change of pace. And chances are, the waiter will get your order right too!
Choose your time wisely
If you opt to dine alone during a busy time, getting a table invariably will be difficult. Chances are, you'll asked to wait a while so that a table for one can be arranged.
It's a difficult situation but you deserve service like anyone else and yes, the restaurant wants to maximise its customers, but sometimes priorities conflict.
You can expect to get the table for two if you were there first, but you can avoid this situation altogether by making a reservation or arriving at a time other than, say, 7.30pm on Thursday.
Gauging solo-friendly restaurants
If you dine alone regularly, then it's wise to seek out restaurants that welcome solo diners. Here are a few tips to help you find such establishments.
Being greeted warmly by the host or maitre d' is always a good indication. If you walk into a restaurant and the host lacks discretion (yelling "table for one", for instance) then perhaps you should turn and leave.
Solo-friendly restaurants can also be identified by ample reading material at hand, a drink-by-the-glass list and small preset tables that are well positioned, not tucked behind the kitchen door.
Uwe Wriedt's solo dining experience was courtesy of Sezzam, Mall of the Emirates.