How living, travelling and dining alone became the ultimate markers of modern-day independence
There’s little doubt we’re living in the age of the individual. Time to yourself is redoubling as a luxury, and between work and play, lifestyles are starting to reflect that. Hectic schedules mean homes are havens, holidays are opportunities for escape and self-reflection, and meals out are as much about convenience as pleasure. As we are learning to value, as well as enjoy, our own company, flying solo is finally losing the lonely hearts label and, in cities at least, becoming the norm.
The prospect of eating dinner alone in a restaurant was once daunting, but the move towards bar and counter-style seating in many restaurants has all but eliminated the need to reluctantly sit opposite an empty chair – and with it, the taboo. Restaurant design is changing to cater to this, and popular eateries such as Barrafina in London – which counts around 20 single covers a day in its Soho outpost – are made up entirely of bar stools overlooking an open kitchen.
‘Solo dining really started in the States,’ says Nicholas Lander, Financial Times’ restaurant correspondent. For Lander, bar-side dining is the main reason a meal alone has become less intimidating and more commonplace. ‘When you’re eating at a bar, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a party of one or three or five. Really, it’s a situation where everyone benefits.’
The swing also nods to changing modes of living. ‘More people are living alone, and as a consequence more people are no longer cooking on a regular basis,’ explains Alison Pearlman, whose book Smart Casual charts the transformation of restaurant styles in America. ‘The solo diner is a demographic and a lifestyle fact.’
Today, more people live by themselves than ever before. According to Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone and a professor of sociology at New York University, one in two households in Manhattan and Washington are occupied by one person. In Paris, more than half boast single occupants. In Stockholm, the statistics push 60 per cent, and approximately 7.6 million people now live alone in the UK.
Affordability is an issue, but many – stressed out urbanites in particular – are prepared to cut corners elsewhere for the advantages of personal space. ‘Living alone comports with modern values,’ Klinenberg writes. ‘It promotes freedom, personal control and self-realisation – all prized aspects of contemporary life.’
He suggests that, far from being victims of loneliness, solo dwellers are more likely to spend time with friends and neighbours, go to restaurants and get out to cultural events. Likewise, because technology allows for constant communication, time spent alone is, more than ever, a conscious choice.
Perhaps the most significant upturn in burgeoning solo culture is the number of people taking trips on their own, which is undoubtedly tied to key travel trends set for the year ahead: extending work trips for pleasure, travel for health and wellbeing, and the general move to prioritise experiences over possessions.
According to recent research by Booking.com, 56 per cent of travellers would like to do more independent travel in 2017, and a spike in online searches shows Perth, Vancouver, Puerto Rico and Verona as trending destinations.
‘People are more independent and intrepid in spirit,’ says travel writer Juliet Kinsman, a contributor to Louis Vuitton City Guides and founding editor of Mr & Mrs Smith. ‘We want to experience new, off-the-beaten-track destinations as a local, not as a tourist, and sometimes to really get under the skin of a place, you need to be on your own.’
Words by Alex Hawkins
Illustration by Kerry Hyndman
This feature was originally published in House Notes and on houseseven.com for Soho House & Co