It strikes fear in the hearts of frequent travelers. It is more stressful than forgetting your passport, more frustrating than missing a flight, more nerve-racking than trying to check into an overbooked hotel.
It is eating alone.
“I’m phobic about it,” confesses Charles Pizzo Jr., a New Orleans communications consultant. “Truly phobic. I often rent a car and head for fast food restaurants, where I don’t perceive any social stigma in dining aloneâ€¦. Actually, I generally get takeout and go back to my room.”
I’m sympathetic to folks like Pizzo who suffer from this common eating disorder because I have a mild case of it myself.
Eating alone brings out the neurotic, phobic, paranoid part of me. The little voices that say, “They’re looking at you” grow louder and louder until I can’t even read the newspaper that I’m hiding behind. My dining experience becomes an outtake from a Woody Allen movie.
Jennifer Urezzio understands how we feel. A frequent solo diner in New York, she’s learned to ignore the long stares from other patrons when she requests a table for one.
“I don’t know what it is,” she says, “I mean, it’s not like I’m some kind of freak.” There’s a name for the fear of dining alone. It’s called solomangarephobia, according to celebrity psychologist Lillian Glass, and just about everyone has it. It boils down to travelers thinking that other people are looking at them, when the patrons are, in fact, focused on their food.
“It’s really a self-esteem issue,” she says.
If it is a confidence problem, then it’s exacerbated by many restaurants’ shoddy service for solo travelers. Put simply, the establishments don’t want to bother with singles because they often take up a table meant for two at only half the bill and tip.
Sharon B. Wingler, a flight attendant and author of the book Travel Alone & Love It, experienced that kind of resistance firsthand in the Greek islands a few years ago. After waiting in a long line for a seat at a highly recommended restaurant, the owner flat-out ignored her.
“Finally I said, ‘Do you have a table for one?'” she recalls. “And he said, ‘Good night.’ It was devastating. I was so humiliated.”
Not all restaurants are hostile to single customers, says Marya Charles Alexander, editor of the South Pasadena, Calif., newsletter “Solo Dining Savvy.” She notes that many establishments are installing single-friendly seating like dining counters, communal tables or cluster seats, all designed to calm even the most chronic case of solomangarephobia.
“I think the number of corporate travelers who are facing the challenge of eating alone is increasing,” she adds. “They can’t be ignored anymore.”
And, contrary to what those little voices are telling you, having people at restaurants pay attention to you isn’t necessarily a negative thing. Particularly if you can turn the tables on the staff, as Dallas-based frequent traveler Ed Trissel did on a recent trip to Houston. He just took out his notepad.
As he began jotting notes to himself, Trissel noticed that the staff perked up. They suddenly became attentive to his every need, fearing he might be a restaurant critic.
However, Vince Giandurco, himself a former restaurant critic in New York, says that tactic doesn’t always work.
“For the most part, dining alone is the pits,” he counters. “Most restaurateurs don’t go out of their way to put the lone diner at ease. They make them feel as if they are taking up too much real estate or that they are not as special as those dining in groups.”
Even if solomangarephobia isn’t curable and most restaurant staffs only exacerbate your paranoia, the phobia can be controlled.