This is the Travel Take, where Matador’s writers and editors make the case for their favorite travel hacks, tips, and personal tics.
It doesn’t matter if you’re someone who travels to eat or someone who eats for the energy to keep traveling: Sharing a meal with your companions is an essential part of the journey. But eating alone can be just as special. Next time you find yourself somewhere new, carve out some time to eat at a local restaurant by yourself.
Few experiences can better teach you about where you are, the people who live where you are, and the other tourists who visit. Eating alone is like donning Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility — you get to hear what people say when they think no one is listening.
Don’t stress about feeling lonely. Trust me, you won’t be. Be present in the moment. Don’t rely on headphones or screens to keep you company. Without your friends in tow, there’s no pressure for small talk between bites of food, just a chance to soak in the local vibe. Restaurants are where people catch up, get into fights, and hide their affairs. They’re where local business leaders meet and where enviously fashionable people, seemingly unemployed, dine for hours in the middle of the day. Observing all this with no distractions is like a glimpse into what it would be like if you, too, were a local.
Eating alone provides ample time to people watch — an essential vacation activity. It’s far easier to enjoy the farcical conversations of loud strangers (and share a moment with the bartender laughing about those conversations after) when you don’t have to also keep up a conversation with a dining companion. The pleasure of dining solo doesn’t come from being by oneself, per se, but from being open to what’s around you.
I can understand the aversion to publicly eating alone. Silence can be awkward, as can sideways glances from strangers. It’s also important to note that, as a white guy, I rarely have to worry about discrimination or feel threatened by unwanted advances. When I’m mocked, it’s often harmless, like when a bar owner in Marseille, France, who, upon learning I was American, strutted around with her shoulders pushed out imitating what I’d look and sound like after drinking the mid-afternoon pastis I ordered.
Then there’s all of the media out there that say eating alone is bad. “Is it true that eating alone is bad for you?” one Guardian headline asks before listing studies that find a link between frequent solo dining and depression, heart conditions, and diabetes. But those studies are often flawed by small sample sizes or skewed demographics. They also don’t take into account that, when done right, a solitary restaurant meal while traveling gives more insight into the day-to-day culture of a location than six stops on the hop-on, hop-off bus. It’s a break from the sightseeing, constant walking, and pressure to make the most of every moment. The only downside is that there are less chances to try a variety of dishes off the plates of what other people ordered — though of course, this is the time to order as many dishes as you want without judgment.
What you do get to eat, however, is consumed in concentrated bliss. There’s no order shaming or diet restrictions to be considered other than your own. You can try that regionally specific dish without having to listen to a single close-minded or judgemental comment. You can even close your eyes and think about each ingredient and flavor in a basic grilled cheese if you want. Meals alone are when you realize that taste buds are your best buds, and that quality, uninterrupted time together is the key to happiness.
But you only get to use your taste buds fully, and experience the pleasures of people watching, if you get out and eat a meal alone.