How To Eat Well While You Travel Solo
Eleven years ago, I took my first solo holiday. I had a boyfriend at the time, but he was deep into his masters, so I set off to experience Florence without him, or anyone else. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. Turns out, I’m OK company and a woman dining solo in Italy may find additional delicacies arrive unbidden at her table, which is never a bad thing. Since then, I’ve set off independently to write about the culture and food of many more nations for work as well as for sheer pleasure.
Unlike journeys with partners or pals, travelling solo invites proper introspection – sometimes uncomfortable, always worthwhile – and allows you to wholly immerse yourself in your destination. You don’t spend dinner discussing people or politics back home. You don’t have to talk at all. And yes, loneliness may occasionally strike, but cafés, restaurants and bars across the world also serve up interlocutors.
A meal alone in a foreign place is a doubly delicious prospect, whether savoured during a pan-global sabbatical, weekend jaunt or snatched between meetings. Not only does it proffer a bite-sized introduction to a destination’s culinary heritage, it offers an opening to reconnect with oneself. With more of us set to travel solo in 2020 – a YouGov study for Hong Kong travel platform Klook found that 76 per cent of respondents, regardless of age, gender or nationality, are keen on independent escapades – it’s clear any lingering stigma died last decade. Let’s move the conversation on by considering how to make the most of every single repast when far away from home.
Freed of the burden of pre-coffee conversation – hallelujah! – the morning meal provides the ideal opportunity to plot the day’s adventure. Once the appetite’s appeased, perhaps by delicious huevos estrellados envueltos en hoja santa y queso fresco at Lardo in Mexico City or the delectable Galilean spread served in an Ottoman-era dining room at The Efendi Hotel in Israel, or a simple tropical fruit plate, get stuck in to collating recommendations from friends, local magazines, social media or travel sites and saving potential destinations to your smart phone’s map. That way, if intentionally or in a whim, your intended schedule gets binned, you’ll have solid options to hand. The more planning you do now, the more complete your absorption in your surroundings in the hours to follow. A heaving hotel buffet is always tempting, but if it’s international fare, save the stomach space. You can have mediocre eggs anywhere.
02. All-day dining
Flying solo means you don’t have to adhere to anyone else’s idea of what an eating day looks like or to standard meal times. If you want to devour your destination in a few days, snack stops are essential. You might stroll by the famous Fairmount Bagel in Montreal. Sesame with cream cheese please. You might fancy a kardemummabullar at Mellqvist Kaffebar in Stockholm around afternoon fika hour. You might wind up near Nowon in New York between 5.00pm and 7.00pm, the only time when chef Mr Jae Lee’s dry-aged burger with cheese and kimchi mayo is available. Or you might happen upon other cult favourites, such as Superiority Burger in the East Village or Tacos 1986 in Downtown Los Angeles, not long after dinner and wisely decide not to resist. All of this is OK, advisable even. Sightseeing is hungry work and there’s no one around to judge.
03. An indulgent lunch
At least once per trip, it’s worth blocking out a whole afternoon for an extravagant lunch. This can be in the guise of a pilgrimage to a bucket-list, tasting-menu-only establishment such as Central, Lima’s celebrated ode to Peru’s biodiversity. Or you might opt to feast upon a breathtaking Alentejan seascape or Alpine mountainside as much as what’s on your plate. This is not for Instagram. It’s solely for you. Turn off your phone, have a journal to hand. Relish the tastes, sights and scents of this particular place at this precise time. Raise a glass to yourself, and whoever else is in your thoughts, for the labour and luck that led you to this utter luxury.
04. Treats galore
Beignets, fresh mango with chilli, pączki (Polish doughnuts), sugar cane juice, chips with mayo, dholl puri (Mauritian pancakes), baklava, pretzel M&Ms, jian dui (Chinese sesame balls), tamales, ice cream… Treat your treats as epicurean experimentation. Treat them as souvenir research. Just ensure that, at least once, you put dietary restraint to one side and gift that inner child what their racing heart desires.
05. An al fresco evening
As nightfall descends on a new location, it’s a fine idea (weather permitting) to acclimatise over an al fresco dinner, rather than hole up in your hotel. Not only does fresh air assuage jet lag, setting yourself up along a seafront, in a star-lit civic square, by a taco stand on the cusp of a vibrant market or in a pizzeria with a vast garden means initial foggy hours can be whiled away people watching. As well as providing clues to dress codes and greeting rituals, convivial spaces invite casual conversation – all the better for accruing precious dining tips.
06. Educational endeavours
You can only glean so much from guidebooks, Google searches and geotag trawls. Especially worthwhile if you don’t speak the language, hyper-local specialist tours, such as Eager Tourist’s Tel Aviv market tour and Sacred Cuisine’s Ramallah and Jericho food jaunts, are increasingly popular. After a few hours roaming streets with a local exert, you’ll be stuffed with the knowledge, addresses and vocabulary necessary to swerve bad food and embarrassment.
07. A multi-stop counter dinner
As long you’re cool with a bar stool and have an absorbing book about your person for any serious waiting time, dining solo releases you of the need for reservations. A multi-stop dinner at three or four appealing spots enables you to hit up several must-visits in one glorious neighbourhood walkabout or city-wide rampage if you’re willing to splash taxi cash. Navigating public transport in unknown zones can rather sap the joie de vivre. In New York, take advantage of oyster happy hour at a feted raw bar, such as Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co in Brooklyn or The Mermaid Inn in Manhattan, before hopping over to an estimable wine bar, say The Four Horsemen, for an appetiser such as Montauk sea scallops with leche de tigre, daikon and fish sauce or chicory salad with fuyu persimmon, buttermilk dressing and candied walnuts, accompanied by gorgeous natural wines. Without even the slightest risk of wait-time hanger, you can now amble or cab it over to a possibly more crowded location, such as Wild Air or Atla. As for dessert, now it’s late, try your luck getting into an iconic eatery such as The Gotham Bar & Grill to sample its delightful caramalised pain perdu or just refer back to that handy map you made at breakfast for the closest sweet spot.
Illustrations by Mr Janne Iivonen