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Food: the best places to eat on your own are dingy exotic eateries and small cafes

Dining alone in public is not, by and large, an activity in which people choose to indulge. The reasons why are clear enough. Eating is regarded as a social activity. Mealtimes are for being convivial, making conversation--not things that are possible on your own. On finding yourself without company of an evening, therefore, convention dictates that you do the decent thing and not foist your solitude upon others. A TV dinner may not be the most uplifting of experiences, but at least it won't cause anyone else to feel uncomfortable.

So much for what should be done. The truth is that there are occasions when even Mr Popular finds himself a) short of company, b) somewhere other than home and c) hungry. When this happens, it would be strange to the point of pathetic for him to deny the promptings of his stomach merely to avoid the indignity of having a bunch of strangers witness his solitude. Besides, taking the going-home route would cause him to miss the opportunity to discover just what a rewarding experience solitary dining can be. In order to make a success of eating by yourself, however, it is important to bear in mind that you cannot do it just anywhere.

The best venues for eating alone are low-key, nondescript places that, if you were in a group, you would almost certainly pass by without a second glance. Neighbourhood cafes, dingy-looking exotic eateries, the ramshackle stalls adjacent to bus and railway stations--these are the ideal settings for meals-for-one. It is true that the food will not always be top-notch, but at least no one besides you will have to bear this disappointment. In any case, by braving the risk of failure, you may once in a while stumble across a genuine treat. A few years ago, when I was living in Finsbury Park, north London, I discovered a small, family-run Cypriot cafe. It was really no more than a kebab shop, but it served a range of simple and (I thought) delicious dishes: grilled sweetbreads, lamb kebabs, chicken stews. I quite often went there after a day working at home. No matter what time it was, I would always encounter a group of Cypriots, drinking and talking. They were invariably friendly, and would sometimes tell me about their lives.

Once I made the mistake of bringing a friend. Having excitedly told him beforehand about this great new place I had discovered, it was a blow, when we arrived, to see him look so unimpressed. What for me was an enchanting neighbourhood restaurant was, for him, just another kebab shop. Sharing my discovery made it impossible for me to go on seeing the cafe as I had done before. I was forced to adopt the more general, accommodating view. These days, I am a bit more careful, and generally keep such places to myself.

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