Table for One? In Lyon, France

Table for One? Yes, please. (In Lyon, France)

Just one? A question that can strike fear into the most stout hearted woman. One that seems even more fraught when you are traveling alone.

Dining alone is a bit of a tight rope walk as is, isn’t it? I mean at home where you are comfortable and have the excuse of working late or being out shopping or whatever it isn’t that big a deal.

But now add in being in a foreign country, or just a strange city on the other side of your own country. Now it feels…different. It feels uncomfortable.

It isn’t so bad at breakfast, because not everyone is a breakfast person. You can be indifferent at breakfast.

It is tolerable at lunch because we kind of expect that people will often have a quick lunch on their own.

But dinner? In a restaurant? Alone? Yikes.

Well, not if it is some chain joint, not if it is a place that does take-out; and you can generally get by dining alone in a hotel that caters to business people.

Vacation – vacation is a whole other story, though. How do you dine alone in a nice restaurant in say, Paris where food is important. Or London where food is fashionable. Or Italy where food is darn near a religion (and dinner can take hours).

As usual, horror stories abound. Women relegated to cramped and awful tables – near the restrooms, near the busy wait stations, conspicuously alone at a table smack in the middle of the room.

There are stories about snooty waiters ignoring the single female diner, doing their best to rush them through the meal and out the door, and other awful, humiliating things.

But I think these are more apocryphal than true. These tend to be more of the urban legends of travel. The ones that seem to be tailor-made for women traveling alone – to keep us from actually traveling alone.

Still, if you are new to this, what do you do? Do you just stay in your room with a sandwich from the local market? Do you hope that the room service is worth the price? Do you give up the notion of dining at a nice restaurant, one that you would dearly love to try – because after all – you are a woman traveling alone?

No, of course not; you can do this. I promise.

I understand that it isn’t easy. All the insecurities around dining alone, traveling alone, can be magnified when you are in a foreign country – especially if it is one that speaks a different language.

Don’t worry! There are strategies to this, ways to do this confidently and happily.

First off, dress for the place you are going. Sure, you’re on vacation and you don’t feel like you have the right clothes. So if you have your heart set on eating at that place in Paris (or Prague or Porto), make sure you pack one thing you can easily dress up.

I usually have a sundress or a skirt and top that I can tart up with scarf (I always have a scarf or pashmina) or other accessories. Seriously, a pair of great earrings and a kick ass attitude will get you further than you know. (Really – the accessories are just there to bolster the kick ass attitude).

Walk into that eatery like the confident, savvy traveler you are (or want to be, fake it until you make it as they say) and no one will question you.

I also like to take something to occupy my mind. Taking your e-reader or small tablet gives your brain something to do other than obsess over what you think others are thinking about you; or from just being bored.

I’m a writer, so I generally have a notebook to scribble in. I jot down notes about what I am eating, thoughts for a blog post, or work on stories. If it is a nice place, I use a smaller notebook, something discrete.

Alternatively, dining alone is a great time for some people watching. Don’t stare at people, but you also don’t have to stare at your plate for the whole evening. I find this works best at outdoor cafes. Watching the people walking by is much less intrusive than observing your fellow dinners in the confines of a restaurant.

Engage your waiter. Make them a co-conspirator in your dining adventure. Mind you, waiters aren’t as chatty as they are in the States.  What you will find is that they are professionals who specialize in getting your order to the kitchen and your food to you in the most efficient way possible. Go figure.

But being pleasant, asking their advice? I find that most waiters are happy to help out. They will know the best dish, but avoid questions like “what’s good here?” which can be construed as an insult; instead ask what their favorite is.

When you are studying up on those polite words, fit in a few waiter questions – a simple “what is the best” with a wave of the hand at the menu should do the job. Most everyone likes being an expert or at the very least – knowledgeable.

Most of all, be confident and be yourself. Go ahead and order the wine. Go ahead and order dessert. Enjoy the food. Enjoy the experience for what it is. Smile at the good fortune that brought you here. Be in the moment. People will respond positively to your joie de vivre.

Because hey – you’re having dinner in a foreign city! Hopefully a really good one. Hopefully this is one that you can’t wait to rave about in that travel blog or on the next email or postcard you send.

It will, I promise, get easier over time; like most things do. Your friends will marvel at your verve, “You dined alone? In Madrid? Really?” Yes. Yes you did.

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