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Why I don’t mind eating alone when I travel

Setting your own pace, eating without the small talk and never having to share dessert and are just two of the advantages of dining alone, says Barbara Balfour, who’s found a table for one here at Play Food & Wine Bar in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

After a long day at work, decompression starts as soon as I walk in the door. Not the door of my sunny apartment, or my hotel room during a business trip – but the entrance of a restaurant where I'll enjoy a meal, from start to finish, in solitude.

I'm not talking about a glop of bourbon chicken and a scoop of peas on a paper plate, to be hurriedly consumed in the sterile anonymity of a food court. I'm talking about unapologetically digging into a big, messy bowl of mussels at a proper sit-down restaurant, with the knowledge that if a diced tomato falls into my lap or a caper gets stuck in my teeth, no one will notice but the waiter.

When I dine on my own, I eat as fast or as slowly as I want. I don't need to make small talk, compromise if my companion only likes red wine, or fight over the bread basket. Long after I have spread the last of the butter liberally across my roll, I am digging into dessert without worrying about being asked to share.

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I'm not antisocial, nor am I a misfit. It's just that there's a time and a place for scintillating conversation, and sometimes I prefer my own grunts of appreciation. When chilling out at home with a bowl of popcorn gets old, I opt for the solo dining experience – the next best thing to a bubble bath, except you're doing it in public.

For many, therein lies the problem: Other people will see you doing it. Whether you're there by choice in your hometown or by circumstance of being alone on a business trip, eyes will be upon you. Those pangs of terror that people might think you're a friendless loser date back to junior-high days, when sitting by yourself in the cafeteria was paramount to social suicide, and solo dining involved eating lunch in the school bathroom.

Thankfully, those days are long behind us. In a world where about one of every seven adults lives alone, solo diners possess major purchasing power, and a savvy restaurateur will do what it takes to earn our loyalty, says solo dining expert Marya Charles Alexander.

"It makes perfect sense for restaurant owners and designers to build more bar space or a chef's counter, where guests can chat with each other, or be entertained without needing to rely on smartphones or a magazine," says the San Diego-based editor of solodining.com and author of several guides on the subject.

"As to what people are thinking of you, it's a much easier transition if you view dining out as a way to treat yourself. Being able to dine solo is an incredible lifestyle skill. It doesn't make a difference who or where you are; it's all about knowing how to handle yourself."

This could mean asking for a better table than the one you've been offered by the staircase, or bringing along your iPhone or Kindle, says sociologist John Manzo. As an academic working on an independent schedule, Dr. Manzo is used to dining alone, but finds asking for a table for one can still be intimidating.

"There are two ways of getting past that fear. One is to become a regular, where you establish yourself as a good customer and tipper, as well as someone who can help promote their business," says Dr. Manzo, a professor at the University of Calgary.

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"The other way is to frequent places where solo diners are honoured and valourized."

Some restaurants do exactly that. Many of today's fine dining establishments will see a solo diner as "the greatest compliment a restaurant can receive," says Ottawa restaurateur Stephen Beckta, whose three eateries are a magnet for solo diners.

"They've chosen to eat with us for the pleasure of dining – not because they were roped into a celebration or a date – so why would we not embrace them?"

Mr. Beckta's lunchtime policy for inadvertent solo diners – guests who book a reservation for two and end up being stood up – is to not charge them. "How else would you want to turn around their experience if not to take care of their bill?

"If you're a solo diner, my suggestion is to ask for the things that are going to make you happy. A table out of the way? A seat at the bar? In conversation or left alone? A good restaurant wants to make you happy."

It wasn't always this way. Travelling alone through Paris at the age of 16, Elisse Goldstein-Clark quickly learned how to handle herself after getting hung up on when she tried to make a reservation at the legendary Maxim's bistro.

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"'We do not book tables for one,' I was told very imperiously," says Goldstein-Clark, now 56 and partner of the Elkhorn Inn, a historic inn in West Virginia. "So I called the next restaurant on my list, the Moulin Rouge, and made a reservation for Dr. Goldstein. They just assumed I was his secretary."

When she turned up, she looked them right in the eye and said, "I have a reservation for Dr. Goldstein," and was given an excellent table in front of the stage.

"Dr. Goldstein" went on to use this trick for many years – and always got good service – though she hasn't had to in a while.

Restaurants are much more accommodating to the single diner than in years past, says Carleton University professor and author Moira Farr.

"Recently I went into the good diner on the main street of Cobourg, Ont., for breakfast, and reflexively said to the owner who was seating people, 'It's just me.' She said, 'Not JUST you! I'm seating you right here by the window,' and she proceeded to give me the nicest spot in the place. I hate to think of anyone, especially women, finding themselves alone on business and choosing to hole away with overpriced room service because they're too chicken to eat alone. I hope those days are more gone than not."

As adults, we operate on conflicting schedules, have clashing tastes and juggle different budgets – all things to consider when sharing a meal with someone else, says Ms. Alexander of solodining.com.

But none are reasons not to have as many options as possible when it comes to answering the question, "What's for dinner?"

Expert tips

Marya Charles Alexander, editor of solodining.com, recommends:

– Calling ahead to gauge the restaurant's response to your queries about seating and possible solo diner amenities.

– Making a reservation. Few solo diners take the time to do so, but it will set you apart as a discerning diner.

– Taking baby steps. Start at a mom-and-pop place for breakfast or lunch and go in loaded with things to read. Do it repetitively. After a certain point, you'll realize you don't have to wolf your food down or open your smartphone, and will be more cognizant of what you're eating.

– Ordering a bottle of wine, having a glass or two, and sending the rest to the chef with your compliments. Do the same thing with your servers, if they've done a fabulous job for you.

Hal Spielman, co-author of Suddenly Solo: A Lifestyle Road Map for the Mature, Widowed or Divorced Man (suddenlysolo.org):

– Consider a sports bar where you can dine and chat with your neighbours about the game you're watching.

– Order a complete meal that will provide leftovers for your next day's dinner.

– An iPad gives you a chance to catch up without being as conspicuous as wrestling with the large sheets of a newspaper.

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