Table for One, Please
Ask solo travelers to describe their biggest hurdle, and the answer often comes down to one word: dinner.
"Many people can get through breakfast and lunch fine, but dinner is just a major problem," says Marya Charles Alexander of South Pasadena, Calif. "Many of us associate the evening meal with sharing it with other people."
To help single travelers turn eating alone into a pleasurable experience, Ms. Alexander publishes a bimonthly newsletter, Solo Dining Savvy. She offers tips to diners and rates restaurants that are "solo-friendly."
Alexander recommends making a reservation in advance, if possible. "It will set you apart from most solo diners, because so few do that," she says. "It also marks you in the restaurant's eyes as a very serious diner."
If you walk in without a reservation, she continues, "Tell the person who is seating you how excited you are to be there, whether you are or not, and how much you've been looking forward to this. You're setting the stage. It's going to be very difficult for them to give you the worst seat in the house."
Once you're seated, repeat the scenario with your server. "Enlist this person to aid you in creating a wonderful dining experience. It works very well. People are just charmed."
Sharon Wingler, who gives classes in Chicago on traveling alone, suggests that anyone who is uncomfortable dining alone can practice by going to a few nice restaurants at home. "You'll find out it can be a pleasant, relaxing experience."
In a new city, Ms. Wingler says, walk around and look at a variety of restaurants. Read the menus posted outside, and look inside. This allows you to match your taste and budget with a place.
An alternative to eating dinner alone is to make lunch the main meal of the day. Then, Wingler says, "graze" your way through dinner by stopping at outdoor cafes and sidewalk stands, or buying groceries and finding a spot for a picnic.
Another veteran solo diner, Julie Smith of Brookline, Mass., makes eating alone easier by taking along "props." She says, "I read a book, write postcards, or write in my journal. In informal places, sometimes I'll even bring my knitting."
Alexander offers reassurance that even in a fine restaurant, reading is in good taste. "Contrary to popular belief, white-tablecloth restaurants are not offended when a solo diner pulls a book or magazine from a briefcase or purse."
Ms. Smith also recommends one more prop. "If you want to interact with people, open up a map," she says. "If waiters and others get the idea that you're looking for things to do or out-of-the-ordinary day trips, they'll help you. Maps are the best ice-breaker."