For years, solo dining has been about as a person sitting at a corner booth in a restaurant or a bar stool, looking lonely, but as more Kenyans find fun in eating alone, it has become less awkward.
Marion Mithamo, a travel blogger often travels to new places by herself, and ends up dining solo. So with time she has become accustomed to it, as she enjoys her own company.
“I read somewhere that one of the biggest struggles for solo travellers is dining alone. Before, I used to feel really self-conscious, but the more I travel and dine by myself, the easier it gets. I really enjoy my own company,” she says.
One memorable dining experience was her first visit to Tune Hotel, which is now Ibis Styles where she felt awkward as most of the other diners were there either with their families, friends or partners.
“I talk to myself quite a bit, so I probably looked even weirder to the people around me. But I kept myself busy writing or taking food pictures,” she says.
When dining solo, you are likely to meet warm and accommodating waiters.
She says it is almost as if the wait staff have a silent, unspoken understanding, hence they go out of their way to start a conversation and make one feel welcome.
Marion says she mostly gets anxious about dining solo in uptight, businesslike hotels. For such places, she brings a book to read or a journal.
“I also like to watch Netflix movies on my phone. The only thing about that is that I may burst out laughing, and that’s OK.”
In cases where she is staying at a hotel, she befriends the staff and smiles at strangers. Plus, there is always the option of ordering in room service.
Her go-to place for solo dining in Nairobi is Park Inn by Radisson in Westlands, she says, where she finds the servers friendly.
Has she ever dined solo on Valentine’s Day?
“At home, yes! I don’t make a habit of going out to eat on Valentine’s Day. I have gone out with friends for dinner, but finding a place or even a free table is hard,” she says.
She has also found out that it is easier and more affordable to dinner plans after Valentine’s Day.
Eating alone, once considered an oddity, has become commonplace for many across the world mainly due to growth in solo adventure seekers.
Over the past few years, more and more people choose to travel alone .
According to the Tourism Sector Performance Report 2019 by the Ministry of Tourism, growth of free independent travel is among the notable trends that will shape destination Kenya’s performance this year.
The report notes the growth has been due to people wanting to maximise “me-time and that it offers personal freedom as opposed to being tied down to a group of friends, partners or family.
It is also an opportunity to meet new people and often make friends. Gladys Wambui has dined alone in 11 countries in Europe.
Whether she is in Kenya or in a foreign country, she selects a random restaurant, walks in and enjoys an entrée. “It is fun and nice to go out and treat yourself. It takes a bit of courage. It is something I have been doing for some time,” she says.
To do so, she says, you have to be independent and not constantly rely on the company of others.
On Christmas Eve, she made a solo reservation at a restaurant in Europe.
“Given that it is Europe, it is quite common but here in Kenya you will get people asking whether anyone is joining you. Don’t worry about the people around you because there is no rule that says you cannot go out and treat yourself,” she says.
Solo diners never get to be alone for long. There will always be people wanting to join you.
In Turkey, the hotel staff would randomly join her table, some questioning her solo travel and others offering to join her for the rest of the trip.
A regular adventurer, David Kibet, recommends sitting at a table with a view of the entire dining room, which is ideal for people-watching.
“I have been a solo diner for many years and comfortably so. I also always sit at the bar. I am more comfortable and confident when sharply dressed. It doesn’t bother me in the least no matter the venue or time of day .I have also realised the only person judging me is usually myself,” he says. With more and more people choosing to dine out alone, savvy restaurants and hotels are trying to be more welcoming by setting up a table for one.
Bilha Mucuha, the general manager at Tamarind Mombasa has fond memories of people who come in to eat alone.
She says solo dining is a growing trend.
“We have seen people booking tables for one during Valentine’s in the past,” she says.
In most of these restaurants, live bands or Deejays make solo dining more exciting.
Melinda Rees, the Hemingways Watamu hotel operations manager says although Valentine’s Day is a lovers’ day, they also serve families and solo diners.
“We have a band, a glass of prosecco for everyone and a bouquet of roses for each lady. We do have number of families booked for the dinner, but love is not just for couples,” says Melinda. At Roberto’s restaurant in Nyali, Renata Ballarin says everyone is free to join in the lovers’ dinner with a glass of Sangria and a red rose for ladies.
Adventure companies and lodges are also seeking to profit from brunches, events or dinners that attract young singles looking for social activities or to find a partner.
Esther Njeri who works at Stegra Hotel in Lodwar has come up with a Valentine’s package that includes speed dating, dinner and later a two-hour classic romantic movie.
“It is the first time we are doing it. Last year, after Valentine’s, singles felt left out when we only did a couple’s gig,” says Esther.
“There will be speed dating and ice breaking games for singles and how well do I know my spouse for couples.”
In Lodwar, she says, there are few opportunities for single people to go all out and have fun, beside clubbing or going to a coffee shop.