When you see someone eating alone in a restaurant, do you think they're brave or lonely?
Food writer Suzanne Lenzer says it's likely the latter.
"From day one we learn to eat in the company of others, and we figure out fast that the kids who eat alone at school are the kids who don't have anyone to eat with," she wrote. "Socially, eating alone is not a sign of our strength, but of a lack of social standing."
The culture of eating alone
The act of eating is a shared one across cultures. In fact, in Thailand, eating alone is thought to attract bad luck, and in South Korea, many restaurants discourage solo dining.
"For Koreans, eating is an extremely social, communal activity, which is why even the Korean word 'family' means 'those who eat together,'" Professor Sung-hee Park of Ewha University told CNN.
But the stigma of eating alone isn't unique to Asian cultures.
"Our restaurants just aren't made for people who want to eat alone," writes Radhika Sanghani in British Newspaper The Telegraph. "The entire restaurant culture is built around eating with companions, sharing and talking."
According to the 2006 American Time Use Survey, 58 percent of Americans regularly eat on their own, but there's a difference between eating alone at home and dining solo in public.
"There's an idea here that you're overindulgent if you go out to dinner alone," says Joe Yonan, food editor at The Washington Post and author of the "Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One." "People in other cultures seem more comfortable eating out alone."
Yonan says he'd feel more comfortable dining alone in Europe than in America, noting that Europeans "appreciate that you want to go out primarily for the food and not necessarily for the company."
Of course, not all cultures are as solo-diner friendly.
"Dining alone in Korea will draw stares from others that enter the restaurant," writes Daniel Gray on Korean food blog Seoul Eats. "It might be seen as rude for you to take up a table by yourself and you eat all the side dishes (banchan) and main course by yourself."
However, others say dining alone in Korea isn't nearly as uncomfortable as some would make it seem.
"Eating in Korea is hugely cultural, but it's becoming easier to find places to get food for one as more Western-style restaurants emerge," said Corey Wright, an American who teaches English in Korea.
She says takeout is also popular, and many restaurants offer traditional Korean foods like kimbap to go.
"I'm used to the solo dining experience," Wright says. "Other teachers, especially those out of college, might experience more difficulty. One friend told me she equates kimbap with loneliness."
One is the loneliest number
What is it about eating alone in a restaurant that makes us feel so out of place?
"We're ingrained to believe that meals are communal activities," Lenzer writes. "We're so accustomed to constant distraction that the act of … sitting quietly in an intimate environment like a restaurant leaves us feeling exposed. With no one sitting across the table to keep us occupied, we wonder what those others sitting in the room make of our solitary status."
Taking this discomfort out of eating alone is the idea behind Eenmaal, a restaurant in Amsterdam that only has tables for one.
"Through Eenmaal I wanted to break the perception that eating out alone isn't very attractive," Marina Van Goor told The Guardian. "Solitary dining can actually be an inspiring experience."
Ichimen, a ramen house in Seoul, South Korea, offers private seats for diners and a service that allows them to order, eat and pay without ever seeing another person.
In Tokyo, the Moomin Cafe lets solo diners share a table with giant stuffed hippopotamus-like creatures inspired by Finnish picture books.
Other inventions that take the shame out of solo dining are more technological in nature.
In Korea, eating broadcasts — live streams of people eating and chatting — have become popular.
Park Seo-Yeon, a 33-year-old woman who goes by the name of "The Diva," makes more than $9,000 a month from simply allowing people to watch her eat.
She thinks her broadcasts are popular because lonely people can virtually join her for a meal.
Japan has an app called "Dinner With My Boyfriend" that features photos of young men cooking and sharing meals for two. It comes complete with dialogue to make you feel like you're having an intimate dinner.
Its English equivalent is available in the iTunes app store under the name "PlusBoys."
For the lonely Japanese man, there's Oshokuji no Jikan, a three-DVD virtual dinner date series with videos of different girls eating a variety of foods so "you no longer have to eat alone."
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Photos: (banchan) Pat Pilon/flickr (PlusBoys) screen shot