One of the biggest personal challenges I’ve faced while writing this blog has been going out to eat. I love food but social anxiety makes the idea of dining out somewhat daunting. In the past, compulsory department lunches and large birthday dinners for friends left me feeling edgy and uncomfortable. The chaos of the group outing can be terrifying for an introvert—crowds, confusion, uncertainty, and inescapable conversation create the perfect storm for a stressful situation. On the opposite end of the spectrum, dining alone in public was never an option as it included its own, unique set of debilitating anxieties, most based on the irrational fear of being scrutinized while I ate.
A recent discussion with a friend made me realize this was a more common affliction than I thought. I wanted to share some of the insights I use for venturing out into the big scary world of restaurants, hoping they might help others like me get out of their comfort zone.
Finding a sympathetic dining companion has made all the difference. Although my wife doesn’t suffer from social anxiety, she is no fan of crowds. Even more importantly, she knows my triggers and humors me by avoiding stress-inducing situations. Using the following guidelines, we’ve been able to choose places and situations that are conducive to low-stress dining experiences.
GO EARLY The easiest strategy to reduce stress when going out is avoiding peak times. Due to our work schedules, eating out early is our preferred modus operandi, often going as soon as the restaurant opens. Seating is ample and the staff is fresh—obnoxious guests haven’t spoiled their mood. (On a related note: don’t be that guest; treat your servers with respect and you’ll have a pleasant meal.) In a non-crowded dining room, you also won’t feel rushed by people in line eagerly eyeing your table. A relaxed atmosphere is an anxiety-free atmosphere.
SIT AT THE BAR If you arrive at the restaurant only to discover there is a wait, sitting at the bar is an easy way to skip the line and get down to the business of eating. Because the bartender is also your server, drinks are instantaneous and you don’t have to wait for a server to place your order. And if you find yourself dining solo, sitting alone at the bar carries less of a (perceived) stigma than sitting alone at a table.
GO WITH AN EXPERT Restaurants with non-traditional ordering procedures (think Soup Nazi from Seinfeld) or places that feature unfamiliar fare (especially ethnic eateries) can seem imposing. Overcoming the initial intimidation, however, can be highly rewarding. I’ve found that if you dine with someone who has previously visited the restaurant—or who is familiar with the cuisine—the fear of the unknown is greatly diminished.
WAIT THREE MONTHS I try to stay away from new restaurants for at least three months after their grand opening. The initial buzz surrounding a new restaurant creates large crowds and long wait times. The new business is still working out kinks in their operation, new staff is being trained, and the chef is refining the menu. Waiting a few months should make your visit less hectic and give you a more accurate impression of the restaurant.
GO THE DISTANCE Small, independently owned eateries (often serving ethnic fare) located in strip malls and parts of town that aren’t destination-oriented can yield great food discoveries. While this may seem counter-intuitive for those hesitant to go out in the first place, these establishments are usually less crowded than chain restaurants. Additionally, parking is easy and prices are often significantly lower than at larger establishments.
There are still situations that make me feel awkward but I’m at the point where the thought of eating out is no longer paralyzing. The effort to overcome (or at least side-step) some of the hurdles that had resigned me to the fast food drive-thru for so many years has been both liberating and rewarding.