When travelling, I'm often alone in a city. This is okay for me, except for one situation: dining out alone is just awkward. Guests in restaurants are almost always either couples or groups and being alone is weird. I'm looking for tactics to make this less awkward. At the moment I just spend most of the time playing with my smart phone. Actually I'm writing this question exactly while waiting for my food.
Dining alone is only awkward for you (that is, it's an internal thing). It doesn't bother any of the restaurant staff, and it doesn't bother any of the other customers. So, you have to figure out what makes you uncomfortable about eating alone.
There are some ways you can mitigate this feeling:
Find somewhere where there are also other people eating alone. If you're travelling, you can almost always find a hotel or airport restaurant with other solo customers. The presence of others eating their own meals alone might be enough to make you feel better about doing the same thing.
If the restaurant has a bar, you can often get meals served at the bar. You'll often find other people doing this too. That way you don't have an empty seat across from you. You can even strike up a conversation with the bartender if you are so inclined.
Find a table or seat that doesn't face other customers, such as looking out a window.
Do what you're doing now, absorb yourself in your mobile technology.
I also used to feel extremely awkward about eating alone. I can clearly remember specific restaurants from years ago where I was feeling really uncomfortable eating by myself. However, somewhere along the way I realised that there wasn't anything to be uncomfortable about, and today I have no trouble eating alone.
The other question linked in the comments has lots of good advice. As I said in a comment over there -- nobody cares!
This is the first thing to get over the awkwardness, all those other people in couples and groups are busy with the other people at their table. It's very rare that people take notice of what anyone else in a restaurant is doing.
When you're travelling you're forced to eat alone, I'm assuming it's not something you'd choose to do. So the next step is to pretend you've chosen to do this -- it's not something forced on you, you've decided to go out, eat alone and not care. I have a few favorite restaurants in a few places and often eat in them alone and I consider it a bit of a special treat. If I'd chosen to eat with other people I probably wouldn't have got to go the restaurant I wanted to.
What I'm trying to say is that you can convince yourself that it's not awkward, however there are a few other things you can do.
You already have your phone, restaurants are one of the times I like to have a physical book to read. Or a newspaper (do the crossword if that's your thing). Or just watch other people, and see just how little attention they're paying to you.
Aim for restaurants that will be more single-dinner friendly, anything that has a bar you can eat at is good (so actual bars, sushi places and steakhouses). Sitting at the bar you can normally chat to people there and/or the staff if it's not too busy. Restaurants in or near hotels (particularly business hotels) get a lot of single dinners. Avoid anything aimed at families.
If you're not at the bar try and get a table somewhere out of the way and just have your own space.
One last thing, the people that might care are the waitstaff. You've almost certainly taken a table that can hold at least two and used it for one. This may make their life easier but in any tipping culture the may see it as lost money. So be extra nice to the staff, tip a little extra if you can, don't hang around if the restaurants obviously full and they're looking to seat more people at the table. Actually, I'll rarely eat alone in a completely full restaurant for just this reason, I like to aim for ones that are about half full. Unless I've already made a reservation and made it clear that I'm alone.
Finally, if you're somewhere that has an outside area (and the weather for it) then sit there. Particularly if it's on the street. Then you can just watch the world go by and contemplate how awesome it is that you get to go where you want and eat what you want without having to negotiate or compromise with a group of friends.
Edit to add a different option
Of course, the other answer to your question is "find someone to go dine with you". Depending where you are this may be easier that it seems, because there are plenty of other people who don't want to dine alone either.
Meeting people in hostels is a good idea (maybe post on the noticeboard if the have one) or even in hotel bars. I'd consider not trying wherever you're staying just in case you decide you want to avoid whoever you meet for the rest of your trip. Although be aware of the cultural implications of asking strangers out to dinner.
You could throw caution to the wind and post on Facebook, any of the travel forums, the chat here or even Craigslist (!).
The last link is more geared to 'pop-up' restaurants which are becoming very popular along with home-dining where people serve in their home. Both of these tend to be very much group affairs where everyone is thrown together. You should be able to find more in a local listing magazine or foodie blog for wherever you are.
Along the same lines are any restaurants with communal tables -- think Bavarian-style beer halls. That style has become very trendy lately and even some high-end places are adopting it (often along with a set tasting menu).
Or go somewhere where the food is secondary to something else you can participate in. Maybe find some pub-sports (bowling, pool, darts) tournament or a poker game. Board and tabletop gaming is big now if that's your thing and places have open games that people can join.
Of course the risk is that you'll do that and then hate the people you're with -- but it's only one meal and you can remember SpaceDog's rule: You're unlikely to see any of these people ever again, so it doesn't matter.
And if you do have a bad night with whoever you meet it might make you appreciate the times you have to dine alone. :)
Put yourself in the other people's boots. If you see someone dining alone, would you spend the entirety of your evening judging their every move, or would you spend no more than 2 seconds and then go back to the task at hand, focus on the food before you ... As stated before me, as you wouldn't care, for others, no one would care if you were alone, a couple, quartet or above. The only scenario where someone would give you any attention is if you were part of a laud party.
I often dine alone, and like it, but only if I have a book. iPad is best - you can be reading a book or a newspaper or whatever you want and don't have to fuss around with keeping the pages open or folded, which enables you to be comfortable at a small table. People may notice you are alone and sometimes you can tell that makes them uncomfortable - it helps to notice them as well, and smile. Put them at ease. Be nice to the waitperson. As I write this I'm eating by myself in a pretty nice restaurant. If the place was super busy with a long wait line I would feel uncomfortable. But there's not and I don't.
I actually love dining alone, travelling or not, and the one thing that always makes me feel completely comfortable doing it is eating at the bar whenever that's an option. A lot of fine restaurants have bar seating, and at the very least, it's perfectly normal-looking to be seated at a bar by yourself, but better yet, you might end up sitting next to someone else who's dining alone and strike up a worthwhile conversation. If nothing else, you have the bartender to talk to.
The issue is mostly due to your perception of awkwardness. It seems analogous (though not identical) to the subjective experience of loneliness, or what is called "perceived social isolation" (The issue is perception!)
So the key is to disregard this perception, which does not serve you well. If you perceive good things about your situation: good things about the staff and fellow patrons, perhaps avoid using electronics, and read a book or newspaper, you may spark pleasant conversations with others. Regardless the outcome, it my be helpful to regard it is a temporary situation, and to cultivate an expansive tolerance of the discomfort you have in this situation.
There are plenty of tips and advice in these answers, none of which is worth the time it took to write them. I could add something like "Take a small notebook with you and pretend to write something in it after you "taste" the food, to make it appear as though you are a food critic." However, this as well, would be useless advice. The best way to manage this problem is to realize that the problem does not exist! There is absolutely nothing wrong with dining alone, whether you are married and traveling for business, or single and just having a night out. I see single diners all the time in nice restaurants, and never even think about it. Stop worrying about what other people will think, and live your life to the fullest, in whatever method best suits you!
Other answers give good ideas for helping you cope with the discomfort of dining alone, but I'd like to suggest solving the problem at its source: the fact that you're dining alone in a place where that's uncomfortable. There are two simple ways to solve the problem at its source:
- Dine in places where you're comfortable being alone. What that means is up to you. Are you uncomfortable because you're surrounded by people? Eat where or when there are no people, at non-peak hours or at places with small tables or little space. Are you uncomfortable because you're not in a group you can blend into, and feel everyone's eyes on you? Take your food to a park or landmark or other scenic place, where a lone diner isn't the most interesting thing to look at.
- Don't dine alone! There are people all around you all the time, and most of them won't bite. Bonus: you're travelling, so if you do end up embarrassing yourself you'll likely never see these people again anyway without actively keeping in touch. Go to a bar or other social scene before you eat, or spend some of your free time socializing with people around wherever you spend that free time. Be a fast friend, and you'll find you not only dine in the comfort of good company, but also gain the benefits of local knowledge and the unfathomable rewards friendship often brings.