Yes, just me.
At one time, these three words were merely a statement of clarification at a restaurant. Now, they are a statement of my identity.
You see, I take myself out to dinner every week, on what my Google Calendar has come to know as SDN: Solo Date Night, and I do it with intense dedication and commitment. I have an organized Excel spreadsheet with the restaurants I want to visit; I block out three evening hours every Thursday; I turn down plans with friends, as I would for any Bumble date.
And I don’t order a quick burger and a beer, like I’m just passing through; I don’t read a book or endlessly scroll through emails; I don’t plug my headphones in to catch up on my podcast queue. I sit, without phone or other distraction, religiously and routinely for a good chunk of time; I order a cocktail and a few glasses of wine, sometimes even a digestif, and a cup of (decaf) coffee; I order a starter and a main, and maybe even a dessert. (Ok, yes, dessert. Definitely dessert.) I treat myself. I luxuriate.
I’ve had an eighteen-course omakase and innumerable tasting menus at Michelin- starred restaurants; I’ve dined across the U.S., UK, Europe, Asia, and South America; I’ve met celebrities and made friends with strangers; I’ve had dinners that have turned into dances, and then breakfasts. Yes, Dad and future employers, this means I’ve had one-night stands. I have been countlessly mistaken for a food critic (and thus received countless discounts) and I have embarrassingly, but rewardingly, disguised myself as a stylist, a teacher, and a philanthropist.
Why? I promise it’s not because I’m incapable of social interaction. In fact, as my 30th birthday and sixth year living in New York approach, I finally have a rich and fulfilling social life. ‘Bout damn time. Rather, it’s because it has become my form of self-care, my 'me' time. While some get theirs in the gym (I do that too, because you know, of all the eating) or the spa, or a stroll around the city, I get mine from restaurants.
My solo dining experience began several years ago, when I traveled frequently for work and had to do so out of circumstance. These times were not my finest: they were comprised of alarmingly high room service charges, the company of cable television, and an unfashionable terrycloth robe. Too intimidated to ask for a table for one in a city unknown to me, I opted for direct delivery to my hotel room, but it wasn’t long until I learned ‘no shame, no gain.’ Here I was in beautiful foreign countries and continents (Ohio counts, right?) and I was wasting what little opportunity I had to explore on an over-priced, crappy meal, confined to the inside of a Holiday Inn. So, I ventured out, with my discomfort and insecurities in tow.
I won’t pretend to remember where my first meal alone took place, nor what I ate, but I will never forget those early feelings. They were a full-body sensation: racing thoughts, heated chest, clammy hands, and fidgety legs. I was, quite literally, uncomfortable in my own skin. Embracing being alone meant inviting criticism. I was convinced everyone around me was not only aware of my lonesomeness, but judging it. I could feel their stares, and their assessments broke my heart before I’d even ordered my appetizer.
But being alone is a muscle, and the more you work it, the better it gets. Over time, I realized that my presence wasn’t even on the radar of most, and the real critic was me, not them. (Ain’t that a useful insight.) And once eating alone in other towns became a piece of cake, it was much easier to do on my home turf. Three years ago, I made my dating relationship with New York restaurants official, and we’ve been going steady ever since.
Would I and could I have enjoyed these experiences with company? Absolutely. But, I don’t, and that is precisely the point. My solo practice is a choice, and one entirely separate from my relationship status. I may get a boyfriend—dear God and internet, let it be known, I sincerely hope that I do—but the most important relationship I have is, and will always be, the one I have with myself (thank you, Queen von Furstenberg). That doesn’t mean I don’t have the same basic, human desires to be loved and appreciated, adored and needed, and to have my needs met as everyone else—I do. (And by needs, I mean the occasional intercourse and the frequent hug— I’m really not asking for a whole lot here, folks.) I certainly hope some day I meet a being with whom I can share my life and many adventures. But, it’s actually precisely this desire that pulls me back to my dedicated practice of dining alone. It is through this unfiltered, unpressured, undistracted time that I’m able to intimately get in touch and in tune with myself, to nurture what will ultimately make me a better partner, and a better friend, sister, daughter, and businesswoman.
I look forward to Thursday every Monday. It is the axis on which my world turns. I am excited by all the decisions and uncertainties it holds. I enjoy picking the neighborhood according to what mood I’m in or want to create, or perhaps the sort of people I want to meet or avoid. I love picking the perfect outfit, and find I am more confident in my selections when dressing completely for myself. Heck, I even wear mascara and perfume, which I otherwise reserve for special occasions. And then, there are the things I don’t know that are something to be excited about, like who I’ll meet or how much I’ll enjoy the food or what new flavors I’ll discover. The night is an enticing mystery, of my sole creation.
But, more than anything, Solo Date Night has become a significant part of who I am because it serves as a regular exercise in presence. Not only does it connect me further with myself, but with my environment. I am forced to observe and absorb my surroundings with great attention to detail. I can draw you the tattoos on the chef at Hemlock, or the light fixtures at Estela. I can describe the intensity and perplexity of the makhan malai, with saffron milk, rose petal brittle, and almond at Indian Accent. And, of course, I can tell you which restaurants have the most handsome, charismatic bartenders to entertain you (cough, Flora Bar, cough).
SDN has taught me to focus and filter, to drown out the voice of my own internal critic, and make myself to available to experiences with those around me. The seemingly simple act of feeding myself a luxurious meal once a week has given me immeasurable joy and a renewed sense of independence. It has given me uninterrupted, 100% selfish time with myself: time that is a true commodity, as it becomes more and more the luxury of our generation.
Whether you scoff at the thought of doing anything that doesn’t require a minimum party of two, or you’re a certified solo globe trotter, I’m here to tell you it’s not just OK, or alright, but a choice that should be celebrated—to go out and experience the world and not wait for anyone to join you, to take the time for yourself and to not feel guilty, to just get away from it all from time to time—and to explore how investing in your relationship with yourself is ultimately an investment in every other aspect of your life, empowering you to charge ahead with clarity and intent.
So, yes, just me. Please.
Emily Schildt is a brand marketing consultant and freelance writer. She spends a lot of time alone, because she likes it that way. It also makes her stories pretty great, so they say. Follow along, in all her travels, reads, and grocery store tours on Instagram!
Photos Bogdana Ferguson