Long Reads

Why I Love Going to Bars Alone

This week, our Table for One columnist discusses the many merits of flying solo at happy hour.

by:
September 13, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne. Prop Stylist: Sophie Strangio.

Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves drinking alone and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.


I once walked into a bar during happy hour, headed straight to the lone empty seat and was about to sit—when the guy to my right grabbed the stool and pulled it closer into himself.

“This is taken.”

“Oh, okay,” I said, leaning against the bar next to the empty seat, grazing it with my thigh just to spite him, sipping a Vesper with my pinky pointed out toward him.

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Top Comment:
“Hi Jen, I'm so sorry you've had those experiences. You couldn't be more right; my privilege has afforded me a different level of comfort at bars. For what it's worth, the other solo patrons at the bar I frequent most happen to be women (not men). Maybe that's why I feel safe there, too, as a gay man myself. If you're ever in New York, please message me and I'd be happy to disclose where it is: https://food52.com/users/1482960-eric-kim/message -E”
— Eric K.
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He hogged that seat for a solid hour waiting on his date, leg shaking, unlocking his phone to zero messages and locking it again, and twisting a full 90 degrees every five minutes to check the door.

She’s never coming,” I wanted to whisper.

It made me nauseous just standing next to the guy. So much movement. I thought he was going to have a heart attack, like being alone at that bar was the worst thing in the world.

I get it. I’m often a little more self-aware, self-conscious even, whenever I go to bars alone. Which is why I try to keep my phone in my pocket so I don’t look like Mr. Fidgety.

Instead, I like to be present, to enjoy the solo time I’ve crafted for myself by choosing to sit at that bar without anyone else. Maybe I’ll have a book with me to read while I drink a glass of wine; chardonnay in the summer, cabernet in the fall.

Or if I have work to do (though I’m not proud to admit this), I’ll be on my laptop typing away in between sips of something stronger, like a smoky Scotch, neat with a splash of water. I always keep a notebook and pen on me in case the bar is crowded. No one wants to be that guy on his laptop in a crowded bar.

The anonymity is nice. When you go to a bar alone, no one there knows anything about you; you're just a person in a bar. You can be whomever you want to be for the night.

Far from the quiet safety of my routine at home, I can pause and take in my new environment. My brain fires in different ways and the writing comes out fresher, less inhibited. I'm more open.

This openness has never failed me.

I like to be present, to enjoy the solo time I’ve crafted for myself by choosing to sit at that bar without anyone else.

There is, of course, the subject of the drink itself. I take great pleasure in drinking alone. There's no better way for an introvert to unwind after work than a good honsul (a portmanteau of the Korean words for "alone," honja, and "alcoholic beverage," sul), just one of many loner trends taking over Korea right now.

I've learned so much about beer, wine, spirits, and cocktails because I go to bars alone and talk to the bartenders. I love tasting something new and adding it to my mental repertoire of future drink orders.

I have one bar that I love the most. It’s "my bar," and the bar manager there is "my guy."

Pushing his hair back even though it always falls back into his face, R is easygoing and gives off major cool-dad vibes, probably because he is a cool dad and has the cutest daughter in the world. He talks about her all the time, in that quiet way that dads talk about daughters they’re immeasurably proud of.

Most importantly, he happens to be an incredible mixologist and has taught me a great deal about the world of drink.

The very first time I walked into my bar, I ordered the “Dirty Martini” off the menu because the “Dirty” here was sherry, not olive brine. How creative, I thought. It tasted wonderful and made me realize that not enough people drink sherry anymore, though more and more are certainly starting to cook with it again. It’s time for a comeback, I think.

Earlier this summer, I was reading The Sun Also Rises at my bar. In the first few pages, Jake orders a Pernod and in that moment I realized, “I’ve read this stupid book a thousand times but have never had a Pernod.” So I told R and he poured me my first Pernod. I watched as the ice cube melted and turned the absinthe a cloudy neon-green. He called it a pastis, a category of aniseed-flavored aperitifs, and let me taste a couple others. Now I keep a bottle of the stuff on my shelf at home because I love the way it tastes like a cocktail but feels like a bullet (40 percent, 80 proof). Two of those and I’m good for the night.

Crema, Italy. Photo by Eric Kim

Before my solo trip to Northern Italy a few weeks ago, R introduced me to the world of amaros. Now when I go to a bar alone, a whole new wall is opened up to me: Averna, Montenegro, Fernet, Braulio. Less strong than Pernod, but equally delicious and easy on the stomach. Good for digestion, bitter.

I love going to my bar after work and, when it’s R behind the counter, asking him to make me anything [insert a mood, any mood]. One time I was writing about peaches and was living and breathing and eating peaches all week. So I told him that and he made me a lovely sidecar with a splash of peach liqueur. It was floral and aromatic and eased me into my evening after a stressful day at work.

Another time I was hungover, but had promised one of my writers that I'd meet them for a drink and didn’t want to cancel. So I told R my sitch and he made me a bitter, nonalcoholic spritz—herbal, almost medicinal, and life-givingly hydrating. It got me through the meeting and I went home feeling better that night.

Then there was that time my aunt died. That same week, one of my best friends died. A month later, my uncle died. I went to my bar each time not to talk about these losses, but to be out in the world so I didn’t have to be home alone crashing into myself.

Whenever my life feels so bleak and my heart seems about to break, R makes me a drink. I ask what's in it, write it down later, and recreate it for myself when I feel well enough to be on my own again.

On a night like this, R made me a cosmopolitan because it was, in his words, “an underrated drink.”

He was right.

I held that cloudy pink cocktail in my hand, took a sip, and said, “Oh, okay.”

It was less sweet than I had always imagined “that drink from Sex and the City” to be. Apparently people put too much cranberry juice in their cosmos, so it has a bad rap.

I love things that have a bad rap. Because the reason behind their demise is usually not a very good one. This one in particular was spicy (R had infused the vodka with rose hips and serrano chiles) and it felt good as it went down. It made me forget about my family for a couple hours before I had to head home to my dog and call my parents to deal with funeral arrangements.


Going to a bar alone is like cooking for yourself—you’re carving out time and space for self-nourishment. You’re taking care of you.

How could that be a bad thing?

The main reason I love going to a bar alone is that I know exactly what I'm in for. It's a constant, one of the few things in my life over which I have some semblance of control. There’s a 99 percent chance I’ll leave feeling better than when I walked in.

Even better when I get to sit with my thoughts and feel the pressure of time release, and to remind myself as I sip a cocktail, read a book, or chat with R—that even when we’re feeling the most alone in the world, we're never really alone.

Do you ever go to bars alone? Let us know in the comments below.

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Eric Kim is a Senior Editor at Food52, where his weekly solo dining column, Table for One, runs every Friday morning. Formerly the Digital Manager at Food Network, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.

34 Comments

Michael P. September 18, 2019
I love going to bars alone. It's a great experience to just bring a book or a notepad and just be out by yourself with your thoughts. You need a third space, a place that's neither home nor work, but a place where you're comfortable. How comfortable can you be if you never enjoy being alone?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 18, 2019
Michael, nail on the head: "How comfortable can you be if you never enjoy being alone?"
 
Warwick N. September 18, 2019
I absolutely adore being in a bar alone. Before my early retirement, I traveled a lot for work, from coast to coast. By virtue of the fact that I traveled alone, I found myself in hotel bars, as well as in bars in close proximity to where I lodged. Those jaunts gave me solo time and space to unwind, grab a bite, think, plan, work, and, of course, to sample the specialty drinks. I don’t miss the crazy work travel, but I do still head out to bars alone when I’m home and when I travel leisurely. BTW, I love the old, dark wood, low light, plush leather seat bars best.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 18, 2019
Ooh, the hotel bar. Totally forgot to write about that. I love a good hotel bar.

Dark wood is easy on the eyes.
 
April A. September 18, 2019
I love this article! It saddens me because I want this experience too. But when I, a human woman, go to a bar by myself, the entire process is more fraught, unpredictable, and at times, scary. Sounds nice tho!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 18, 2019
There must be a list of bars published somewhere for people who feel this way. I can only speak from my own experience, but I find that Beauty Bar on 14th Street tends to be filled with mostly queer patrons and women. I feel at ease there, in other words.
 
M September 16, 2019
I think you absolutely nailed the journey that you can go on once you interact with the person serving you. But is this really about aloneness, or communication? Is the man really struggling with the fact he is alone at the bar, or because he's being rejected and losing the interaction he was waiting to have? Are you really anonymous when you create a relationship with your bartender, learning about his family and drink passions? Do you need to be alone to learn about sherry, amaro, pernod, and Cosmopolitans?

I've had every one of those experiences, and often with groups, all because we make that first simple effort to show interest and enthusiasm in the people and things being served to us. My story would be only a little different -- discovering the bite of fernet in a hospitality shot, gulping it down at the end of the night until my tongue grew a taste for it, for example -- but the ultimate result is building a sense of community. That simple, basic interest in their craft will often explode into a relationship -- great conversation, meeting friends and family, being invited into new experiments, being introduced to other solo customers, and even breaking beyond the boundary of the bar.

All that said, one word of advice: have more than one "guy." It's a revolving door business, and there's nothing quite like the jolt of losing your bar person and starting over from scratch.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 18, 2019
I thought of you the other day when I went to my bar and my guy wasn't there. Cold and icy at first, I eventually warmed up to him when I realized how nice he was.
 
Susan T. September 14, 2019
I, too, often unwind after work by having a great cocktail as a party of one. I have my favorite “haunts” and bartenders though I’m always willing to check out someplace new. I don’t go back to places that aren’t welcoming to solo female customers (and that’s mostly a function of the bartenders’ friendliness or lack thereof.). But I have created a nice little network of new acquaintances and learned a ton about wine and making craft cocktails along the way. I’ve always wondered if my ease in drinking/dining alone is because I’m an “only child” or an introvert or both?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 14, 2019
Probably both. :) I'm not an only child, but certainly an introvert. And couldn't agree more; I never return if the bartender is unfriendly. Even worse if I feel that it's because of my race or sexuality. We loners need friendly familiar faces. I think that's why I kept going back to R.
 
marytarry September 14, 2019
I do enjoy the alone time as well and have often read a book sitting at a bar. When I travelled solo to Ireland, I was rereading a Harry Potter in the pub. The couple next time interrupted to say they hadn't seen someone with such good concentration. I t was then I realized I'd been there for awhile and the pub had gotten quite noisy. I hadn't noticed : )
 
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Eric K. September 14, 2019
Ireland is such a lovely place for solo travel; everyone was so nice to me when I went. Reading Harry Potter with a pint sounds like my idea of nirvana. (Book 6 is my favorite, by the way. What about you.)
 
luvcookbooks September 14, 2019
I also enjoy quiet time alone in a bar. Thank you!
 
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Eric K. September 14, 2019
:)
 
CameronM5 September 13, 2019
Never in a million years did I think this piece was leading to a Cosmo. Yes, everyone makes a Cosmo wrong. Very little cranberry juice, Cointreau, never Triple Sec and real lime juice. When I bartended I only made it like this for people I liked.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 14, 2019
I like how pink it is.
 
Lucien September 13, 2019
I'll cheerfully cop to having sat through 'Call Me By Your Name' several dozen times. So I recognized your picture of Crema instantly! Did you have a good trip?

I've had scant luck—here in Manhattan, anyway—finding great bartenders in quiet, non-scene bars. It only makes sense that a great bar would be noisy and crowded, but I've rarely enjoyed myself at a bar (or restaurant) where I had to holler over the din.

Should you ever land in New Orleans again, the lovingly-tended, picturesque decay of 200-year-old Napoleon House is hard to beat on a rainy afternoon. Whenever I visit the city, it's my favorite place to nurse a sazerac (or two) and read. It's quietest in the late afternoon and late evening.

In the meantime, congrats on finding a simpatico watering hole close to home. Cheers to that!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 14, 2019
Hi Lucien, I love that you recognized the square. Yes, Crema was one of the loveliest solo trips I've ever taken. I'm trying to write about it, but it's hard to write about something with so little conflict (internal and otherwise). I've added Napoleon House/Sazerac to my NOLA list. :) Thank you.
 
jen September 13, 2019
Yep, drinking at a bar alone, written by a man. It's quite a different experience for a woman. The guys hitting on you, the bartender looking at you sadly. Not enjoyable.
 
Erika K. September 14, 2019
I had the exact same thought.
 
jecca September 14, 2019
I do go to bars alone, and it can be great, but it is definitely a different experience for a woman.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 14, 2019
Hi Jen,

I'm so sorry you've had those experiences. You couldn't be more right; my privilege has afforded me a different level of comfort at bars. For what it's worth, the other solo patrons at the bar I frequent most happen to be women (not men). Maybe that's why I feel safe there, too, as a gay man myself. If you're ever in New York, please message me and I'd be happy to disclose where it is: https://food52.com/users/1482960-eric-kim/message

-E
 
M September 16, 2019
I'm not going to presume I know the types of bars you've gone to, nor negate your experience. It really sucks that a celebration of sitting alone at a bar tweaks such negative memories for you. But this isn't an article that warrants a "written by a man." I wouldn't have written the same piece -- mainly because I don't think aloneness is reasoning behind the man of nerves or the experiences that can be had at the bar -- but it definitely speaks to my bar experiences as a woman, when I have interacted with those making me drinks and shown interest in what they were doing. I can't imagine any bartender ever giving me looks for being alone, let alone leaving it to me to deal with unwanted male attention.
 
Mary K. September 16, 2019
I had this exact same thought. I would love to go to a bar alone, I would love to travel alone, but I am rarely left alone, even now, in my 30s. How old does a woman have to get until men stop hitting on her? I look forward to that day!
 
Barbara J. September 18, 2019
I've gone to bars alone and do love it when you can go and *not* have the classic bombardment of bs you get when you have breasts. And those places are cherished. I venture and never return if I get that classic experience. I am in my late 40s now so it's a little less frequent (or maybe I pick different kinds of bars than I used to or both). I also have severe resting bitch face, which has some perks......keeps a huge chunk of those kind of dudes away.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 18, 2019
Cherished, indeed.
 
Annie K. September 13, 2019
I'm a mom of a three year old and five month old, and it took getting to this point of life to realize how fundamentally introverted I am. I do love a drink with friends, tea with friends, brunch with friends. But there's nothing more magical than the same out, especially in a lovely spot, with just myself for company. Reading your account of this same thing made me salivate. Cheers to you. May we all find our little sanctuaries.
 
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Eric K. September 14, 2019
Annie, when I was reading your comment at first ("I'm a mom of a three year old and five month old..."), I was afraid it'd veer into: "...and it terrifies me to think that one day they could end up like you, drinking alone at bars." (!) Glad you feel the same way about "little sanctuaries." Sounds like a blog or book title. Or a furniture store.
 
Iris P. September 13, 2019
I recently started solo traveling and am now inspired to do solo bar venturing after reading this. Love reading your posts!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 14, 2019
Thank you so much, Iris.
 
Colleen September 13, 2019
Reading your columns every week (or ...almost every week 😁) is a bit like sipping a nice cocktail at the end of a long day. Some parts familiar and soothing and a little unexpected, a touch bitter, all together ..cathartic and real, and more often than not makes me want to try something new. Don’t know how you put it together sometimes (much like your cocktail maestro R). 🍸
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 14, 2019
Thanks for reading (almost!) every week, Colleen. Here's to bitter, cathartic, and real. x
 
Annada R. September 13, 2019
Lovely, Eric! I HAVE to my find my bar and my own "R."
 
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Eric K. September 14, 2019
You must! I consider it a great asset to my life!