I dare you to walk into any restaurant these days and not find women sitting at the bar—even a woman sitting alone at a bar. I am not talking about the deafening, three-deep, happy hour crowd. I am talking about people like us, not necessarily seeking anything more than a break from the normal routine, a nice drink and bite, and maybe even some surprising conversation.
For much of our lives, we would have been embarrassed to sit solo in a restaurant, let alone at that long tall table serving colorful cocktails.
Recently, at Ollo Grill in Malibu, I asked the 60-something female stranger beside me to take a gaze around the large circular bar. “Wow, everyone is a woman!” she noted. I had a similar experience on a visit to Minneapolis a few months back (see photo below).
It was not always thus. For much of our lives, we would have been embarrassed to sit solo in a restaurant, let alone at that long tall table serving colorful cocktails. “I was never one to sit at a bar,” says Deborah Starr, a psychologist and Columbia University professor. “But at 50, I started doing so by myself, especially when I traveled for work. I find it less isolating than sitting at a table.”
The High Stool Society
If women landed at a bar, it was generally assumed they must either be friendless or hoping to meet a guy. That has clearly changed, and for a variety of reasons: Working women—like Deb Starr—are traveling for their jobs and are no longer content to order room service; many are vacationing alone, or with other women, and want to enjoy the local flavor—if only by eavesdropping. Restaurants have caught on to the high-stool society, and the braver broads among it, and are serving actual meals.
All this and a healthy dose of curiosity—something, I would argue, women have more of than their male counterparts and that can increase with age—make for a legitimate and even liberating phenomenon. “There’s something especially freeing about going to a bar,” says Nancy Jacoby, an energetic, friendly wife-mother-grandmother. “I love people-watching, especially with none of the worries of home. You can be a completely new person in this setting. Nobody knows me, and I can be anyone I choose to be.”
Woman Sitting Alone at a Bar: Going Solo
Like Nancy—who spent two years working away from her home, and was an early proponent of the solo bar experience—I do a lot of traveling on my own. When I spent nine days in Portland, Oregon, eating every meal at a different bar, many of my friends were bewildered. (“You don’t know anyone there?”) One said, accusingly, “You can only do that because you know you have a husband at home.” It’s true I am not seeking a hotel room companion. (Hey, I wouldn’t mind the offer.) But I am perfectly happy to sit beside folks like the couple in Lenox, Mass. who offered visiting tips, and the (much younger) man in Princeton who described his job building nuclear waste dumps.
It is refreshing to enjoy narratives I haven’t heard fifty times. It’s also fun to have a new audience for some of my best yarns.
I love my husband madly, and I have a great group of friends, but it is refreshing to enjoy narratives I haven’t heard fifty times. It’s also fun to have a new audience for some of my best yarns. F. Scott Fitzgerald was on to this in the twenties, in his first novel, describing a female character: “But Beatrice grew more and more prone to like only new acquaintances, as there were certain stories, such as the history of her constitution, and memories of her years abroad, that it was necessary for her to repeat at regular intervals.”
I review and report on New York theatre, so I spend a lot of time at my bar-away-from-home, Joe Allen, on Restaurant Row. My pickup line of choice is, “seeing something tonight?” They almost always are. It is how I met actor and now good friend, Rob Nagle. Another thing that makes for a pleasant bar experience is finding one—and they are countless—that offers TV screens. I often surprise co-sitters with my knowledge of all things athletic, having grown up with two older brothers and raised a sportswriter son. When younger women ask for advice on meeting men, I often suggest they learn the difference between Stephen Curry and the spicy chicken dish.
The Food Factor
Arguably, the biggest contributor to women taking to the barstools is the fact that even the most casual eateries are now about exactly that—eating. You have to work very hard to find a popular spot that does not offer yummy bar snacks, if not entire meal service. For example, Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café just reopened in NYC and has not one, but two bars.
“Never before has it been easier to have an incredible meal at a bar,” says a restaurant consultant.
“Never before has it been easier to have an incredible meal at a bar,” says Damian Mogavero, author of several books about the restaurant business and trend-spotter and consultant for many chefs and owners. “People want to be spontaneous and yet they expect great food. It’s no surprise that female foodies would feel comfortable doing so.”
Should you end up with non-talkers, or the otherwise engaged, there is always the trusty phone. One night, I pulled mine out and ordered all my towels and plates for the summer. Others find they can do quite a bit of work, feeling more energized and less distracted than doing it at home or even in an office. Hey, everything is more fun, and people more interesting, when your polished nails are clutching a Negroni.
Michele Willens is a journalist and published playwright, and is currently a theatre commentator for NPR-owned Robinhoodradio. She writes frequently about culture for Huffington Post, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. She is co-author of FACE T: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change. She lives in New York with her husband, NBC News VP David Corvo, and their two children.
A version of this article was originally published in September 2017.