I spent a Christmas alone one year. But I didn't feel that I could tell my friends about it. They would only assume I was lonely or down. I wasn't - I just wanted some space to reset, a period of disconnection from the world so I could reflect. By the time the New Year came in, I felt rejuvenated and ready. I got to thinking, why I couldn't I tell my friends that my Christmas had been a solo affair. Was I so afraid they would think I was lonely?
The truth is, people don't want to talk about loneliness, even though it affects everyone and not just the groups we assume are most likely suffering - the old and the ill; it affects children, young mothers, businessmen. Being alone in public is only seen as 'ok' if you are waiting for company to join - as spending time alone is instantly attributed to loneliness. Society's stigmatisation of loneliness serves to perpetuate it - people experience it in private because to do so in public is taboo.
The more I got to thinking about it, the more I began to see that I could either collude in this covertness or confront it. I didn't leave my job in a law firm, graduate in design at the art school in Amsterdam and train as a social designer to stay quiet. I wanted to challenge the status quo through design. Nowadays, it's expected that you're happy, batting away friends and have loads to share. Albeit virtual, social media has become the dominant public space and it relies on the expression of such things. I wanted to create something that would turn this around: a place where being alone was not only fine, but something to aspire to. Dinner is a time of profound togetherness...so I took this as my way in.
The world's approach to dining alone is by no means uniform but if you've ever seen the restaurant scene from The Lonely Guy with Steve Martin, you'll appreciate the undeniable crowd suspicion that often accompanies solo diners. Are you a widow or a widower, a loner by choice or by circumstance? The assumption is rarely positive - "now there's a person who is refueling by taking a breather from life's demands." If it is, it is romanticised: the attractive actress post-play, the brooding poet or the tortured artist.
EENMAAL, the world's first one-person restaurant, redresses this. Its tables cater for no more than one. In this space, there is no spotlighting of the single person, no seat by the bathroom, no questioning when your company will arrive. EENMAAL goes public with a well-hidden fact: that with a little space of your own, an inviting atmosphere and an absorbing menu, being alone is both a pleasure and a release. Strangely, the very act of this sort of experience is collaborative - there is comfort to be found in the presence of others, without having to interact.
EENMAAL has been open in Amsterdam for over a year. Its success prompted me to take it to Antwerp, in collaboration with The School of Life where, again, its resounding success was testimony to the resonance of its message.
The most recent iteration of the concept is the glacéau smartwater and EENMAAL pop-up in London. Instead of shoehorning an existing concept onto a new city, we partnered with glacéau smartwater to combine its 'smart living' philosophy with the EENMAAL ethos of 'temporary disconnection' and create a new and unique experience especially for Londoners.
It's well known that the nation's capital is in the clutches of 'al desco' dining so in its London context, the experience became about re-energising by reclaiming the much overlooked lunchbreak. We wanted to offer diners some respite from the unrelenting pressures of the hyper-connected world by giving them an opportunity to decompress. We developed a clean menu - ricotta with rye bread, Gravlax with matcha salt and buttermilk mousse with preserved pear - to be savoured over 40 minutes and paired with the UK's first vapour distilled British spring water - smartwater - so that the focus was on the food and the rejuvenating effects of the experience. Carefully curated flavours and colours gave diners an interesting sensory experience that was captivating enough to trump the iPhone and overcome for the need for company.
As with the Amsterdam and Antwerp restaurants, the London restaurant aimed to be an inspiring solo dining experience that challenged the status quo. By taking a moment of pause to eat, hydrate and reboot, we hoped that Londoners would feel restored and ready for their afternoons. Who knows how our readiness to shine a light on it might change things. Sometimes it just takes one person to admit that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes at all.