Brian Edwards Media

The Shame of the Solitary Diner (A Diversion)

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Twice during the week I had occasion to grab a bite of lunch by myself in a local café. The proprietor of this establishment has had the good sense to furnish his patrons with a pile of magazines to read. Not the sort of stuff you find in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms – tattered copies of the Woman’s Weekly and Readers Digest, dated July 1995, and back-copies to 1943 of the National Geographic with articles on the long-lost Fakawi tribe of the upper Amazon.

(I don’t wish to mock the National Geographic. It was the only magazine in which a frustrated Belfast adolescent could find pictures of half-naked women. Admittedly they were pigmy women, and some had plates in their lips, but Irish beggars can’t be choosers. As they said during the potato famine, ‘Be grateful for small Murphies.’)

No, these were top-class magazines obtained by the café from the shop across the road – GQ, Arena, Vanity Fair, that sort of thing.

Now the real reason why these magazines are there is not that the café’s patrons are bored out of their trees and desperate for something to read. The real reason why the magazines are there is to hide the embarrassment, to cover the shame of that most tragic and guilt-laden of creatures – the solitary diner. 

Eating, as Desmond Morris told us on the telly some years ago, is not merely a means of keeping the body alive, it is essentially a social activity, a group activity. One may eat alone in the privacy of one’s own home, but to eat alone in a public place, is to invite suspicion of personal failure at best and deviancy at worst.

The solitary diner is therefore painfully aware that the eyes of other people are upon him – people with friends, people with partners, people with children, people with business colleagues – people, in other words, who have about them the incontrovertible evidence not only of their social success but of their very normality.

The magazine or newspaper – newspapers are even better, since they provide total protection – the magazine of newspaper thus has two functions. It protects the solitary diner from the accusing gaze of the café’s other ‘normal’ diners; and it ensures that the solitary diner is not accidentally caught staring at someone else in the establishment, raising immediate suspicions of some unspeakable perversion.

Now if you think I’m wrong about this, take someone with you to a restaurant or café and check out the solitary diners. You will find that, without exception, they come into one of  four categories: head buried in menu or wine list; head buried in magazine or newspaper; head buried in work; head buried in food

Some other key indicators: The solitary diner has difficulty in attracting the attention of the waiter or waitress – he is low on the restaurant’s priorities; the solitary diner eats more quickly than other patrons – he is anxious to end his shame; the solitary diner is delighted when his cell-phone rings and conducts the conversation in an abnormally loud voice – he wants everyone to know that he does indeed have a friend, relative or colleague; the solitary diner has difficulty exiting the restaurant with dignity – his muscular co-ordination is affected by the knowledge that all eyes are upon him.

The characteristics of the solitary diner are personified in the tragi-comic figure of Mr Bean, trying to hide the steak tartare – which he has ordered not knowing what it is –  under the tablecloth and in the sugar bowl. But in the end, what is tragic and comic and strange about Mr Bean is that he is almost always alone. Behind the discomfort of the solitary diner may lie a wider and more deep-seated social prejudice, which the diner himself shares with those around him, against people who not merely dine alone, but are alone.

As for me, I am a shameless social voyeur. Dining alone gives me the opportunity to pursue my hobby of composing the imaginary life-stories and situations of my fellow diners, without being interrupted by the irritating tittle-tattle of a companion. That offensive old coot staring at you from the corner table is me.

So if you do spot me in a local hostelry with my head buried in a magazine, I want you to know that it is because I am genuinely interested in the contents of that magazine and not because I feel uncomfortable about eating alone. I do have a friend. Several friends in fact. It was just that none of them could come today. Honestly.

Waiter! Waiter, could I have… Waiter! Oh never mind.

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30 Comments:

  1. Isn’t it incredible how any crowd makes us kowtow. The incessant fiddling with phone or watch or pram or purse or pockets as we nervously wait for the lights to tell us to walk. WALK NOW. Self confidence is the single most wonderfully freeing thing yet we teach it so sparingly in life? Burp!

  2. Despite my ongoing admiration for every shred of wit and wisdom you utter in this blog – unless of course you are being horrible to librarians – I have to say that this current post on ‘the solitary diner’ is such a load of old baloney on a stick!

    I love being a solitary diner – whether it be breakfast – lunch or dinner.

    Two instances will illustrate.

    First, I travel a lot to meet with clients – or speak and contribute to meetings – panels- conferences etc. So much so that, when I am away, at the end of along day talking/contributing – I crave that wonderful silent feeling when I am sitting in a cafe or restaurant – having ordered something nice to eat – and so are able to pull out a book to read in absolute solitary contentment

    I also love constructing the space to the solitary diner: for example, I have a dozen different ways of commandeering salt and/or pepper cruets, sugar bowls, et al the better to support my book.

    I also love how mouthfuls of food fix a text in your mind – giving you the chance to read deeply – not scan in that instant hyper fast way that screen reading provokes.

    In short the combination of public solitude – good food – and a good book is irresistible.

    Second example. I also keep a journal – and again – sitting in a cafe – especially at the weekend – this time armed with nothing more than a coffee and a cold of glass of water, I’ll happily scratch away to my hearts content until good manners intervenes and I feel I have out stayed my welcome.

    As for that passing friend or acquaintance – if you see me with a book -or scribbling away – please – please – don’t think about it. I don’t need company. Just say hallo – greet me with your warmest smile – and pass on!

    • Despite my ongoing admiration for every shred of wit and wisdom you utter in this blog – unless of course you are being horrible to librarians – I have to say that this current post on ‘the solitary diner’ is such a load of old baloney on a stick! I love being a solitary diner – whether it be breakfast – lunch or dinner.

      Ergo, if I understand you, anyone who doesn’t ‘love being a solitary diner – whether it be breakfast, lunch of dinner’, and says so, must be talking ‘baloney on a stick’. With that level of hubris, old friend, your solitary dining is soon likely to be involuntary. Anyway, I shall ignore you in the street, as directed.

  3. I would have thought that for someone like you who is well known, the danger is that a member of the public would thrust his or her company on you uninvited, and like the Ancient Mariner, fix you with a glittering eye, and bore the pants off you, while you beat your breast yet cannnot choose but hear!

    I actually enjoy dining alone; one of the great pleasures in life is to be able to eat a meal and read a good book at the same time. It beats conversation. If one gets bored one can shut the book and go.

  4. Paul, leaving aside the baloney on a stick, you have expressed my feelings perfectly.

  5. If you are concerned about dining alone, set up a laptop on the table and all the other punters will assume that you have such an interesting and fulfilling life that you haven’t time to waste chatting to another diner. As long as nobody can see the screen you don’t even have to turn it on, thus conserving the battery. I’m told this works a treat.

    • If you are concerned about dining alone, set up a laptop on the table and all the other punters will assume that you have such an interesting and fulfilling life that you haven’t time to waste chatting to another diner

      Excellent advice, Baz, which many people seem to be taking already. Trouble is they also set their laptops up in cafes, order one cup of coffee, and then hog the table for the next hour. The same happens with people who grab the cafe’s newspaper and read it from cover to cover over one cup. Grrrrrrr!

  6. Baloney on a stick is a complement Dr Edwards Sir .. I didn’t ask to be ignored in the street – merely in the cafe if I have a book open!

    • Baloney on a stick is a complement Dr Edwards Sir .. I didn’t ask to be ignored in the street – merely in the cafe if I have a book open!

      Now you see that’s the trouble with reading – such an antisocial pursuit. Now we TV addicts are more sociable creatures and like to watch with other people. This in contrast to: ‘Not now, dear, can’t you see I’m reading!’

  7. My worst experience as a Solitary Diner was a Hotel in Northland. The staff were great and the food was good but being the solitary and ONLY diner in a rather large restaurant was a weird experience. Perhaps I didn’t need to book…

  8. Food on a stick you say? Like Paul and Ben, I’m happy with my own company, enjoy the surroundings and certainly feel a long way from “shame”. Maybe that’s a Catholic thing?

    • Food on a stick you say? Like Paul and Ben, I’m happy with my own company, enjoy the surroundings and certainly feel a long way from “shame”. Maybe that’s a Catholic thing?

      Couldn’t say, since I’m not a Catholic. More of a Protestant atheist. Amazing how many people think that if you’re Irish you must be Catholic. Anyway, you’ll see that I called the piece ‘a diverstion’, that is, meant to divert, not to be taken too seriously. But interestingly enough, when I was trying to find a picture on Google to illustrate the piece and searched ‘dining alone’, I found a whole swag or articles on the topic, many referring to the discomfort they felt when eating alone in a restaurant. Maybe it’s just a question of not knowing where to look, which is why the book, newspaper or laptop come in handy.

  9. The solution is a moleskin & a good ink pen…

    Worth considering. For many years Judy and I used to observe couples in restaurants and try to come up with their ‘story’. Boss and secretary having an affair? Newly weds? Lawyer and client? Loving father with daughter or sugardaddy with girl young enough… You get the picture. The temptation to go and ask them if we were right was often overwhelming. No fun though if you’re by yourself.

  10. So how do you cope with people recognising you and intruding on your solitude?

    • So how do you cope with people recognising you and intruding on your solitude?

      Even in the dim, distant past when I was really famous, I had very little trouble with unwanted approaches from strangers. Most were charming and polite. My wife found it unpleasant sometimes since the partners of well-known people are often treated as though they were invisible by the ‘fans’.

  11. Dr Brian – was this one your “Top of the Morning” intros from a few years ago? It reads very familiarly.

    • Dr Brian – was this one your “Top of the Morning” intros from a few years ago? It reads very familiarly.

      It was indeed, David, slightly edited. From time to time, when I don’t feel inspired to comment on things in the news, I drop in something I wrote earlier and still rather like. Hopefully still relevant enough to be enjoyed.

  12. Its interesting (if Ive read this right)that we take Physical proximity as a measurement of social sucess.Ive seen plenty of socialy inept beings in groups at tables hiding their suffering in a group of like individuals.Desmond Morris must have missed this in his studys.As for deviants I see them everywhere, in groups , and alone, .Does this mean all these people I view as deviants are not and I am one myself?

    • Its interesting (if Ive read this right)that we take Physical proximity as a measurement of social sucess.

      This fairly lighthearted piece wasn’t really about what people in groups are like. As you say, they can and do often behave appallingly and much worse than people on thier own. It was simply a reflection of how uncomfortable many people feel dining alone in a crowded restaurant and the strategies they use to overcome that feeling.

  13. I find dining alone more uncomfortable than almost any other social situation, which is laughable I know. It’s irrational. I like my own company. So I decided to write a book about it, a sort of feel-the-fear-do-it-anyway type of thing. I decided that I would book into all the top restaurants, one by one, and do the degustation menu alone (to prolong the pain) while writing down every creative thought I had during the process. I did it once. It all felt so awkward I couldn’t bear to go through it again. Must give it another go.

    • I find dining alone more uncomfortable than almost any other social situation, which is laughable I know. It’s irrational. I like my own company.

      I’m not sure it’s all that irrational. The situation is unusual to the extent that, generally speaking, others in the restaurant have someone to talk to and, more importantly perhaps, a focus for their attention – the person they’re with. Your options when you’re by yourself are to read, examine the wall, look down all the time or look at other people which is likely to produce unfavourable comment. As our mothers told us, “Don’t stare, dear, it’s rude.”

  14. Have quoted your Solitary Diner post in my blog.
    I eat out alone often and like to people watch, read or write as I dine.

    One of the benefits of eating out alone is you can choose the topic of “conversation” as in the book or articles you read.

    My dad, on the other hand, will NOT eat out alone, thinking everyone will think him unable to find a date or friend.

    Do you think it’s different with men or women? I’m thinking it’s just different personalities and approaches to life. Thanks for the fun article and your perceptions. Following you on Twitter.

    • Do you think it’s different with men or women? I’m thinking it’s just different personalities and approaches to life. Thanks for the fun article and your perceptions. Following you on

      I’m not sure. Women may be more reluctant to dine alone, due to the possibility of being hit on. I quite enjoy my own company, but only for brief periods. I suppose if you’re a really self-confident person you won’t give a stuff about what other diners think about you. However, inventing other diners’ stories is a pleasure best shared.

      On the gender issue, note what Catalina Y has to say.

  15. Sitting alone in a cafe is fraught with apprehension and dread: what couple or group is going to walk in and seeing you sitting there by yourself?
    For a woman, it’s the personification of “wallflower”. There is that awful, immediate feeling of mutual awkwardness and embarrassment.

    • For a woman, it’s the personification of “wallflower”. There is that awful, immediate feeling of mutual awkwardness and embarrassment.

      Thanks Catalina Y. Good to have a female perspective.

  16. I enjoy eating alone at lunch, a break from all the people in my day and a chance to catch up on the NZ Herald. I might be Nigel, but I’m not Nigel-no-friends, I just happen to enjoy some time to myself :-)

  17. “I might be Nigel, but I’m not Nigel-no-friends, I just happen to enjoy some time to myself :-)”

    Funny, that: I know quite a few “Nigels”. And, without exception, they all seem to lack having friends.

    I see these guys at concerts, movies, live shows, bars, restaurants, lunch cafes etc; always alone. When I say “Hi”, and after the stuttered reciprocal greeting, their eyes quickly dart about (with that anxious look) as if “Nige” is trying to locate his imaginary friend/partner. I just offer up an all-knowing anaemic smile, and scuttle away.

    “Nigel-No-Friends” is more than a social-loner moniker, he does exist. Sadly, in numbers. :-(

    • Funny, that: I know quite a few “Nigels”. And, without exception, they all seem to lack having friends.

      Then again, if one wanted a name likely to produce widespread social isolation, ‘Merv’ might just do the trick. Brian, on the other hand, is both a strong and a loveable name, as in ‘Bold Sir Brian’.

  18. BE: Then again, if one wanted a name likely to produce widespread social isolation, ‘Merv’ might just do the trick. Brian, on the other hand, is both a strong and a loveable name, as in ‘Bold Sir Brian’.

    There is a telling difference between a “Nigel” and a “Merv”: A “Merv” doesn’t succumb to enacting pantomime to fend off embarrassment; there is no need for contrived affectations when being discovered out’n’about town, all alone. He doesn’t suffer the usual ignominy of being in “social isolation”, because he’s congenitally inured against any inhibiting self-consciousness which corrodes self-worth.

    While we’re in the mood for alliterative self-praising names — “Marvellous Merv” sounds OK, to me.

    • While we’re in the mood for alliterative self-praising names — “Marvellous Merv” sounds OK, to me.

      Fair enough. Though one of the very few Mervs I knew was known as Merv the Perv. I have no idea why.