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Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

The fine art of solo dining

For Joel Golby, Brick Lane bagels were the gateway drug for a solo-dining habit that’s serving him well in Tier 2. He thinks you should indulge too.

Written by
Joel Golby

There are two types of people in this city: people who get their Brick Lane bagel from the yellow sign place (Beigel Shop, if you want to be like that about it) and those who get them from the white sign place (Beigel Bake, if you must). I have had all of my most passionate pub arguments about this. As soon as you are taken to one bagel shop, you imprint on it like a baby duck, and you are never able to go to the other bagel place for as long as you live in this city. In my first weekend in London, my sister moved quickly to guide me on the path of the light – ‘You go there,’ she whispered, pointing at the neon-white sign of Beigel Bake, ‘and never there,’ she said, pointing at the lurid yellow of Beigel Shop – and I have never faltered from it since. It is entirely possible that Beigel Shop is very nice. I’ll just never know.

This was an important ritual for me, because not only did it baptise me in the glory of mustard, but it gave me something to do for my first 70-odd weekends in the city. When I first moved to London I was both exceptionally poor and relatively lonely, having, as I did, a badly paid job where I only knew the people I worked with. This means I spent most Saturdays doing roughly the same thing: getting a crawling, never-ending bus from Muswell Hill down to Moorgate, walking along to Shoreditch, through the markets and the graffiti tours and the high-energy art students all wearing what I can only describe as ‘brave hats’ and then cashlessly mooching, looking at books I would never buy, records I would never take home and joke T-shirts that I didn’t quite understand. When that day of not spending money was over, I would queue up at Beigel Bake, get shouted at for saying ‘bagel’ wrongly, hand over about £3 in coins and leave with a precious hot brown paper bag. Inside was the salt-beef bagel (mustard, no pickle) I had been dreaming about all day. Eventually I made some friends, and took them all to Brick Lane for a feast. ‘You should go to other places,’ they used to warn me. ‘You should do other things.’ No.

That was my first introduction to solo dining, and my love for it has only intensified since. There is no thrill greater, for instance, than finding you have a spare hour, nowhere to be, and you’re near enough to a pub for one pint and two packets of peanuts (I first realised this in Angel, at The Harlequin, where I spent one glorious afternoon failing entirely to do a crossword over two slow pints of guest ale).

Over the summer I discovered a lunch place near me that I delight in taking myself to for a sandwich. I have kept its location a sworn secret from my girlfriend so I don’t have to bring her every time I want to eat – a good part of the pleasure is not having to make small talk with someone through a mouthful of food. With Lockdown #2 looming, and the concept of mixing households becoming ever more impractical, there is one upside: you can just, like, take yourself out for dinner. It’s arguably more chic and Continental than meeting up with friends to eat anyway. And at no point does anyone attempt to ‘just try a bite’ of your pudding.

The rules for eating alone are pretty simple: don’t be weird about it. The first time you do it you’re going to be paranoid that you’re emitting ‘I’ve been stood up on a date and I am terribly embarrassed’ energy, but that particular vibe is hard to emulate unless you’re actually feeling the deep and particular sting of humiliation that comes with being stood up. Order your food promptly and try not to sob to the waitstaff and you’ll get away with it just fine. It helps to have something to distract you a little while you eat – a book is more refined than a phone, because it makes you look like the kind of person who uses the word ‘supper’. But remember, you need to hold the paperback in one hand while you use your knife and fork and adjust it accordingly. You could take a laptop at a pinch – it’s better than staring straight ahead at a wall, I suppose – but… don’t. If the worst comes to worst you can put headphones on and listen to a podcast, but try not to laugh out loud at it because someone might come up to you and ask in a soothing voice whether there’s someone they can call to come and get you.

Most of all, revel in dining by yourself. Eating with friends is a fun, social activity, but it comes with its drawbacks: there’s always someone who decides you should all share starters when you’ve already firmly decided what you want; everyone eats at a different pace and there’s inevitably one slow eater holding up the meal; that whole WhatsApp group back and forth about where you’re going to go; the argument over the bill; the agonising over a second bottle of wine. All those problems melt into the background when it’s just you, something delicious with beurre blanc on it and a solo seat at the bar. Order two mains. Order two puddings. Order five starters and a whole bottle of wine. Society doesn’t really exist anymore anyway. It’s time we stopped pandering to its norms.

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