Dining Solo And The Red Paisley Bandana

A friend recently asked me about how I felt about dining in restaurants when I travel solo. I jokingly replied ‘it sucks’. After a dramatic pause I added ‘but only because I don’t get to taste more things from the menu’. She laughed. I laughed. But then she asked again.

This time she added something which made me sit up and pay attention: the prospect of solo dining every night is the one thing that keeps her from going on trips by herself.

Now that made me sit up and pay attention.

‘But why?’ I asked somewhat bewildered, trying to reconcile the incredibly strong and professionally successful woman in front of me with the statement made. She replied that she was just not comfortable sitting by herself, that it made her feel exposed and vulnerable. Her closing statement was that it felt like she was somehow overindulging.

As I drove home later that night, I started to really think about the conversation. How many times had I heard similar concerns from family, girlfriends and female co-workers? It certainly wasn’t the first time.

The friend waiting in the car until someone else from our group arrived because she did not want to be seated by herself.  A colleague begging another female worker – even offering to pick up the tap- to come eat out with her because she wanted to try a new place.

The particularly extreme case in which a shy colleague ate dinner from the room-service menu for almost 2 weeks during an external training because she did know anyone and did not want to sit in a restaurant by herself.  Two weeks. All expenses paid.

I mean, how many dry club sandwiches and stale waffle fries can you eat?

The experience which shaped my relationship with eating in restaurants happened when I was around 11-years old. I was helping our neighbor to paint the nursery for her baby when we ran out of paint. We got into her car -wearing paint stained clothes and a red paisley bandana covering my hair- and set out to get supplies. As pregnant women tend to do, she was suddenly ravenous and wanted a specific dish from a well-known restaurant in the San Juan business district.

I was horrified.

I immediately voiced my concern! How could she even consider going into this extremely popular restaurant during lunch time dressed as we were?!?!?

She looked at me straight in the eye and said: ‘Do you think that anyone in there actually cares what we look like?’

‘I have money and I want food. The restaurant wants my money. They will sell us food. This is a business transaction. Never waste time trying to impress waiters. They care for their tip, and don’t give a bleep about who you are or what you wear.

Almost 40 years later I’m still finding fresh nuggets of wisdom in those phrases.

I cannot pinpoint the first time I went out to eat my myself, it seems to me as if it’s something I’ve always done. In my young teenage years, I would go to the mall -I’ve always been a solo shopper- and eat in the food court. Does that count? Not sure. Food court food is for sustenance, restaurant dining is for pleasure.

But it wasn’t long before I figured that for only a couple dollars more I could eat in a small restaurant or have the lunch special at one of the bigger sit-down franchises. A much more pleasurable experience than carrying your food around in a tray.

When I met my husband, he was traveling full time as a service technician for an industrial equipment manufacturer. In the beginning it was great because he was traveling to the area I lived in. When that project was finished we had to do the long-distance relationship until he decided to relocate to my area. The entire dynamics of our relationship changed because even though we were living together, he was away from home Monday to Friday.

You can imagine that there was a lot of solo dining for me during that period.

There was a Valentine’s day when he was away and the kid was staying overnight at my mother’s. I had been stuck at work and it was almost 9:00pm. I was starving and exhausted. I went to the nearest restaurant. The conversation with the hostess went exactly like this:

– Good Evening, how can I help you?

– Table for one, please.

– For ONE? Are you all by yourself?  (Visualize a wide-eyed tween attempting to commiserate.)

– Table for one, please. (Said in a flat voice and snake-cold eyes)

– Oooowwwwhhhh, I’m sooooo sorryyyyyyy   (Yes, she ACTUALLY said this!!!!)

– Table for one, please. (Said a few octaves above my usual voice register and tightly pinched lips)

– Oh, don’t worry, we will take care of you. Please follow me.    (WTF!?!?!?)

Honestly, I was so disgusted by the exchange that I momentarily considered just turning around and leaving without saying another word. That would just be a hassle.

And I had taken my neighbor’s words to heart: I had money and they had food.

I mean, can you imagine if I had been distressed over dining alone?!?! Mourning a recently deceased partner, undergoing a tough separation, having been stood up by a date…. Or just someone already uncomfortable with sitting alone in a restaurant.

In hindsight I should have said something. Anything. But I was too tired to attempt to teach her the difference between positive support and condescending judgement.

I don’t know why she felt like she had to be sorry for me. Or why it made me feel so furious. But eventually I reached the obvious conclusion: these were HER hangups, not mine. Only then was I able to enjoy in peace my 2,500 calorie chicken burrito. The margarita(s) might have helped a bit too.

I think (Surveyed Individuals = 1) that these insecurities are deeply embedded in our Latin/Catholic cultural heritage. A good woman would just go home to eat and not waste money on eating on. A good housewife would have made sure there was something to eat at home or not be too lazy to prepare it. A good wife would never expose herself to unwanted approaches or speculation by eating solo in public. A good mother would not think of having a meal without her kids……… It always comes down to the same thing: what would people think?

We belittle ourselves into believing that we do not deserve to occupy that space at the table.

Over fifteen years ago I had the opportunity to add a few vacation days to a business trip to France. I hesitated. Should I go to Paris -the #1 romantic destination- by myself or save it for when I could go with my husband? School was in session, should I leave the kid that long just so that I could take a (short) vacation? I was already leaving her for a week of work! Was I imposing too much on my extended family as they already provided a lot of after-school care for my daughter?

‘I could never bring myself to travel like that without my kids.’ Said a co-worker with raised eyebrows. Guilt.

‘Go, we’ll be OK.’ Said my husband. Love.

‘I deserve to have this experience.’ I told myself. Empowerment.

What followed were five glorious days of museum visits, walks along the Seine, drinking kir royals at sidewalk cafés, and dining in excellent restaurants during my very first ‘real’ solo trip. I loved every second of it. Of all the wonderful memories I made, one is particularly pertinent to the subject matter.

I walked into a well-known restaurant, wearing the same (presentable but not fashionable) clothes in which I had been sightseeing the entire day. I asked in my rudimentary French for a table for one and was seated. As I was led to the table I caught a full body image of myself in the mirror.


In a room full of well-heeled Parisiens, there I was, in my dark green corduroy slacks, a long-sleeved black t-shirt from The Gap and wearing unsexy Aerosoles moccasins covered in dust from walking in the Tulleries. I had a flashback of 11-year old me in paint-stained clothes and red paisley banana.

I laughed out loud.

Then I smoothed my hair and pulled out the pretty scarf out of my bag. I arranged it around my shoulders as artfully as I could as I settled into my chair with a deep contended breath.

They had food and I had money. I deserved to be there.

So I’m going have a long talk with my reluctant friend. Then I will get her a gift card along with a reservation for one to her name at a nice restaurant. And I will drive her there.  And I will tie a red paisley bandana to her handback to remind her that she deserves to occupy her place at the table and enjoy the pleasure of her own company.

We ALL deserve our place at the table. And food is good company too.


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