Let’s face it, when you solo travel, it can be intimidating eating in a restaurant alone for the first time. Will they seat me? Will they feel sorry for me? But eating out alone is more common than you think, especially when you’re abroad. In this post I want to discuss not only the benefits of eating solo when traveling as a digital nomad but also some best practices so you have the best experience possible.
Table of Contents
- The Benefits Of Solo Dining While Traveling
- 1. Eat Alone! It’s Cheaper!
- 2. No Need To Make Small Talk With People Or Pretend To Be In A Good Mood
- 3. Spend Your Time Exploring, Not Eating
- 4. It’s Your Trip, You Get To Choose What You Eat
- 5. You Don’t Need to Get Dressed Up For Anyone When You’re Dining Alone
- 6. Digital Nomads Can Work While They’re eating Alone
- 7. Dining Solo Is An Opportunity To Make Friends
- Tips For Eating By Yourself
- Have A Response Ready For People In The Restaurant
- No One Cares You’re Eating Alone (They’re Looking At Their Food, Not You)
- Learn the words for the food you love (and hate)
- Do This before you sit down
- Don’t be a target While You Solo Travel
- Take your bag with you to the restrooms
- Take a Prop (phone book, laptop)
- Don’t Rush Your Meal
- Don’t Pick A Romantic Place
- Don’t Drink Too Much
- Final Thoughts: Enjoy the food
The Benefits Of Solo Dining While Traveling
Don’t get me wrong, I love my friends and usually have a great time when we go out to eat but there are times when I prefer to be eating out alone. When you travel solo, dining alone is an everyday experience.
Digital nomads go on trips for work and might be accompanied by colleagues but for travel, you may have no choice but to eat by yourself. Even If you’ve been in one location a while and have already made some friends there, there are times that you’ll still prefer solo dining.It’s not that you find social dining unappetizing, it’s just that there are benefits to a solo meal. Here are some reasons to eat alone while you’re traveling.
1. Eat Alone! It’s Cheaper!
Even if you’re not paying for the other person or people in your group, eating out by yourself can still be much cheaper than eating with friends when you travel.
I always drink more when I’m with my friends and in many countries it’s the drinks that cost most. When I’m seated in Laotian fusion restaurant or a simple Thai place solo, I drink less which means a smaller bill.
Consuming less alcohol usually means eating less too! Alcohol numbs the signal from the stomach that tells you when it’s full which is why it’s so easy to over-eat when you drink. Drinking also lessens your inhibitions, making it much more likely that you’ll order that extra dish, that second helping or that sweet desert.
Forgetting the effects of alcohol, eating alone is cheaper for another reason too. If you’ve traveled much in Asia, you’ll know that in restaurants here, sharing food is much more common. If you’re used to getting your own plate with your own food on it, it can take some getting used to everyone sharing a few dishes all in the center of the table.
Getting used to eating this way is not the hard part, it’s actually a lot more enjoyable, because you get to try everything on the table and not just what’s on your plate, but when it comes to ordering it can get complicated. If you’re eating with people, you have to make sure that everyone wants the same things. The worst thing you can do is not order enough and this leads to spending more than necessary.
All of these issues go away when you eat solo, just order whatever you want and will be able to finish and save yourself a few of those strange little coins.
2. No Need To Make Small Talk With People Or Pretend To Be In A Good Mood
We all have those days where nothing goes right. By the end of the day all you want to do is be left alone but you’ve already made plans to go out for dinner with a fellow solo traveler. You order, sit down, and feel the need to hide your bad mood and make small talk about the food or surroundings. All the while you really just can’t wait for the check to come so you can take the rest of the night off and relax.
After a long day of work or travel, sitting down to a nice meal alone without being required to talk to anyone or do anything other than enjoy yourself is, for me, the definition of a good time!
3. Spend Your Time Exploring, Not Eating
We travel for a reason, it’s to see the world.
We could all be working back home, in a cafe around the corner from our childhood house, but we choose to set off on journeys around the world for a reason. We want to explore, to absorb the different cultures the planet has to offer, to live a life we could only dream about on those dull, dreary days back home.
Now, a good part of that might be tasting all the flavors of the place you are in. I love being in a new place and hearing about some local dish or strange exotic fruit they have there. But there are also times when I’ve been in the same location for a while and find myself eating the same fried rice bowl or deep fried chicken dish over and over.
On those days I love that I’m on a trip solo so I can get straight back out there and see more.
Sometimes it feels good to sit and enjoy a well cooked meal, enjoy local wine and settle in for the evening but other times I want to eat and run. As digital nomads and travelers of all kinds we can find it hard to know when to switch off, especially if you work for yourself. It doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing, there’s a nagging feeling in the back of your head telling you that you could be working. (At least, there is in mine.)
On the days when I’m feeling super productive and want to to just crank out more, the last thing I want to do is to interrupt the flow. Needs must though, I usually walk into the closest restaurant order, eat, and go. Try doing that when you’re not alone!
4. It’s Your Trip, You Get To Choose What You Eat
As a solo traveling digital nomad I got to choose every dish and every restaurant I ever went to and sure, there were time I made bad choices. The time I blind ordered A plate full of insanely spicy rabbit heads comes to mind (there was no English menu so I just pointed at a couple of items.) But most of the time I got what I wanted.
Now that I’m married (and have a son) I eat most of my meals with them. My son is a third culture kid and will pretty much eat anything but my wife always wants something different so it’s a compromise.
On the days that we’re doing our own things I find those places that I know she would never want to try, like deep fried broccoli and chicken wings at Tibet Kitchen in Dharamshala or this awesome BBQ place I found in Phuket, Thailand. I do love eating out with my wife but I also treasure the days when I get to eat exactly what I want.
5. You Don’t Need to Get Dressed Up For Anyone When You’re Dining Alone
I’m a T-shirt and shorts kind of guy, which is why most of my trips are to warmer climates. I might put on some jeans when it’s cold but there are times when I feel like I need to get dressed up to go out to eat. If I’m with friends, that can be fun but I also like walking into a place and getting food wearing whatever I wore on the beach or at the cafe that day.
When I lived solo in Beijing, I had a friend that worked for a multinational company there, every month or so, we’d meet up at Great Leap Brewery to drink craft beer and eat burgers. He’d usually come straight from work in a suit and a crisp clean shirt. I just didn’t feel comfortable sitting next to him in cargo shorts and flip-flops. I actually enjoyed getting dressed up most days, but sometimes I just wasn’t feeling it.
6. Digital Nomads Can Work While They’re eating Alone
Bringing a laptop to the restaurant and working while you eat is a solo digital nomad’s badge of honor! I don’t think any of my friends would let me get away with it. But when you’re by yourself, it’s awesome to just keep working while you enjoy your food.
You don’t have to be a food blogger or be writing about what you’re doing at that moment. I find that I can’t get fully focused to do anything that requires too much thinking while chowing down. I can outline a blog post though or do some research and make a few notes while I eat or in between courses, no problem.
7. Dining Solo Is An Opportunity To Make Friends
A group of roaring friends, laughing about ‘old times’ is not the kind of environment you expect to meet new people. But if you’re on your own and you turn around, you might just notice that you’re not the only one having dinner for one tonight.
In a recent post about how digital nomads make new friends one of the tips was to wait till someone has finished there work (if they have a laptop out) or their food in this case and just ask them about it.
This might seem awkward at first, especially if you just walk straight up to them. But if you’ve both been sat at your respective tables all evening, you’ve probably noticed each other a couple of times. At this point, asking “How was the food?” seems pretty natural.
You can judge immediately if they interested in continuing a conversation.
Tips For Eating By Yourself
Have A Response Ready For People In The Restaurant
It’s going to happen. You might be in Argentina at a street-side restaurant or at a hotel buffet in Italy, someone’s going to ask the question “Are you eating alone tonight?”
They may tilt their head to one side as they ask or use a slightly sad (read condescending) tone ending with pursed lips waiting for your response. The way you reply to this verbal attack will dictate how the rest of the evening goes.
“Umm, oh yes, just me.” Caught off guard you answer the question and are shown to a small table far from the windows. As you sit down the waiter’s pity burns into the back of your head, you look around at the tables that heard him ask. They’re looking back at you.
Trying to enjoy a meal after an entrance like that requires more than thick skin but you can turn the whole atmosphere around just by being a little prepared.
Waiter: “Are you eating alone tonight?”
You: “Yeah, I’ve been looking forward to this quiet meal with myself all day!”
A quick smile or laugh tell them that you’re not lonely or someone to be pitied but that you’re there by choice, your a rockstar!
No One Cares You’re Eating Alone (They’re Looking At Their Food, Not You)
The number one thing that stops people eating out at restaurants alone is the idea that they’re going to get funny looks from the other patrons or at the very least that they may feel sorry for them. If you think this might happen to you, you are living in the past.
There was a time when people would comment if you turned up alone to an quaint bistro, but that was decades ago!
If you saw someone eating alone today would you even notice?
Unlikely, it probably wouldn’t even register as anything out of the ordinary and you certainly would feel sorry for them! Now, would you have thought differently 10 years ago? Probably not. 20 years ago? You might not be old enough to remember restaurants 20 years ago, but I am! Very little has really changed in the last 20 years except that the smokers are all outside now.
Learn the words for the food you love (and hate)
Don’t order a plate full of spicy rabbit heads like I did!
Language can be a huge hurdle to getting what you want when you solo travel. If no one in the restaurant speaks English or any other language you know, and you don’t speak the local language, you’re going to be in for a tough time.
When I first started living abroad, there were no smart phones, no way to just pull google translate or a picture of what I wanted. But even now, doing that in a busy tourist restaurant with an impatient waitress can be stressful and if you’re going to be in the country a while, you should learn a few words in the language to make your life easier.
Think about how many times you need to tell someone your name compared with how often you need to eat. Even when I do need to introduce myself on a trip a simple “Greg” pointing to myself always works. Learn the words for a few of the foods you really like and the word for please. You don’t need a perfect sentence “Can I have a bowl of rice please,” “rice please” is enough.
If you don’t eat meat, learn how to say “no meat” or the word for “vegetarian.” It’s going to make your life so much easier. If you’re traveling solo by train or plane, learning a few words can be a fun way to spend your trip. Ask the other passengers, someone will be happy to help.
My first day in China, I stepped out of my hotel and found a guy selling meat skewers on the side of the road, I waited in line and watched how everyone else ordered. I put three fingers up and was relieved when he started getting my three skewers, then he turned around and asked me something I couldn’t understand.
It seemed like I couldn’t get my food until I answered this question but I had no idea what he was saying. Luckily the girl behind me in the queue spoke English and helped me out “he’s asking if you want spicy.” I forget if I did or not.
Do This before you sit down
In tourist areas it’s common to see the menu in the doorway or or pinned on the wall outside the restaurant. But often times I like to find the real local places to eat. Sometimes this means having to go inside just to find out what kind of restaurant it is, but certainly before you get to see a menu.
I’ve had so many experiences where I walk into a restaurant, not knowing exactly what to expect. I’m shown to a table and sit down. I order a drink and they hand me a menu and it’s only at this point that I realize I really don’t want anything on the menu. I once did this in a restaurant that specialized in snake meat. Not that there is anything wrong with eating snake meat. That’s just something I’d like a bit more warning and mental preparation for!
Instead walk in, and, when the waiter spots you, ask for a menu and stay by the door. This shows that you haven’t committed to eating there yet. It’s much less awkward if you decide to walk out than getting up from a table and walking back through a crowded restaurant. If you don’t spot a waiter or they’re just busy and expect you to seat yourself, just walk over to the waiters’ station or the bar. You’ll usually find menus there and look by yourself.
Don’t be a target While You Solo Travel
Solo Travelers and tourist destinations are unfortunately one of the places criminals ply their trade. If you are travelling solo and part of your trip has taken you into an areas frequently visited by travellers, there’s no need to be on edge, just take some precautions.
People with the intention of committing crimes are not the same as petty thieves who simply steal out of opportunity. A petty thief may not be out to steal something but after seeing an iPhone left on a table, he may decide to swipe it.
Serious criminals on the other hand are out looking for a target, so don’t be one! Here is a short list of tips for staying safe dining alone.
- Don’t sit next to an exit – criminals are looking to run in and run out
- Sit with your back to the wall, facing the room – you know what’s going on in the room
- Don’t advertise your belongings – put them under the table
- Secure your bag – Put the leg of the chair through the strap
- Don’t hang your coat (or bag) on the back of the chair – you can’t see them there
- Don’t get drunk – drunk people are easy targets
- Don’t carry too much cash – they can’t take it if you don’t have it
- Don’t take your travel bag with you ever where – take a day bag
Take your bag with you to the restrooms
It’s unfortunate but a reality of not just travel but life anywhere in the world, criminals do exist and will take your things if they are left in plain view. Most thefts are a result of opportunity. Very few people would hold someone up for their phone but many more would take one if it is left unattended.
So when you go to the restroom, take your belongings with you.
Take a Prop (phone book, laptop)
Chefs have bad days just like the rest of us. We’ve all been in a restaurant when the food just seems to take forever. Sometimes the staff offer you a free drink to apologize for the wait. But it’s usually not a big deal, you’re chatting away with your friends and having a good time.
But if you’re solo it’s a completely different story, waiting for an hour by yourself for a plate of noodles can be excruciating, especially when you have a travel itinerary to get through.
Don’t Rush Your Meal
When I eat alone I usually want to get it over and done with. I sit down and order, looking around for the moment I see my food come. Once it arrives at table I wolf it down and get out of there. It doesn’t make for a very good dining experience.
I’m usually rushing because I want to get back to whatever I’m working on but after a rushed meal it can be hard to get back into the flow state. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that enjoying my lunch and spending a little more time relaxes me. After eating at my leisure, I get back feeling happier which is much more conducive to getting quality work done. The extra 20 minutes of lost time is rarely noticed.
In a busy restaurant it can be easy to feel like you are occupying a table unnecessarily, especially if there are people waiting. But you have just as much right to be there as anyone else. Remember if they didn’t want you to be there, they wouldn’t have given you a table. Still, if you are the type of person that will feel anxious when people are waiting to be seated, sit at a table where you can’t see the entrance – out of sight, out of mind.
Don’t Pick A Romantic Place
Whether you are traveling or not, there are certain places that you want to avoid when you’re dining solo, it’s not that they won’t let you in (although that is possible) but mainly because you’re unlikely to enjoy your time there.
The most obvious has to be romantic restaurants. No one wants to be sat by themselves in a fancy restaurant on valentines day, because it’s just stacking all the uncomfortable feeling one on top of another. The same can be said of other times too.
While it would be fine to have fine dining experiences in classy restaurants for lunch, you might feel a little uncomfortable going there on Friday evening, a.k.a date night. Friday evening is the most common night for couples, especially new couples, to go out for dates. If you think you could deal with being there alone, then go for it. I’m going to head somewhere a little less cozy for the evening though.
Don’t Drink Too Much
Aside from the security concerns mentioned above with getting drunk, drinking too much can set you up for failure in other ways too. If you get into any kind of conflict with the staff or other patrons, you are going to be looked on unfavorably if you’ve been drinking. Combine this with the fact that you’re ‘not from round here’ and you’re unlikely to be treated fairly. It’s just the reality we have to face when we travel.
No one wants to talk to the drunk guy. You never know who you might bump into when you’re out eating. It could be some friends you just made on your trip, someone from co-working office you use, a potential client or even your future perfect partner. The last thing you want to do is to come off as the guy (or girl) that gets drunk alone in a family restaurant.
I’m not saying don’t enjoy yourself, just keep it under control.
Final Thoughts: Enjoy the food
I recently asked the question whether or not loneliness is taking a toll on the digital nomad community. You can read that post and decide for yourself, but eating without friends or family doesn’t have to be a lonely experience.
You’re there to eat, so enjoy the food! We’re so lucky to be able to travel the world, trying cuisine that we didn’t even know existed. There has never been a moment in history that all the different flavors of the world were more accessible than they are right now. So make the most of it!
Originally from the U.K, Greg has lived in Asia for over 15 years. Fluent in a handful of languages, he ran a management consultancy before creating Face Dragons. He spends his time now traveling around Asia, writing, taking photos, and drinking coffee.