First published in Crumbs #59, February 2017
When it comes to eating out, two’s company for most of us; the idea of sitting through an entire meal alone, the seat opposite remaining purposefully vacant, can be pretty daunting for many. But with the culture of foodie infatuation and casual dining we’re enjoying in these parts, it doesn’t have to be like that. In fact, there are now plenty of diners who look forward to the unburdened gastronomic gratification of a good meal enjoyed single-handedly. And guess what? Not one eyelid is batted as they do so.
The number of solo diners is rising. No longer the preserve of anonymous restaurant inspectors, travelling sales reps and people who simply have no mates, eating alone is far more common than it was ten years ago.
As a food blogger who eats out several times a week, Shonette Laffy (of A Life Less Organised) is just one of a growing number of people used to eating alone in restaurants – and does so happily.
“Going out to have breakfast on my own is one of my favourite things to do of a weekend,” confesses Shonette. “I think in general that eating out has become more accessible and informal. Not only is it more commonplace for people to eat out without it having to be an ‘occasion’, it’s also such a casual thing to do that it doesn’t feel unusual to grab a bite to eat on your own.”
Although Shonette admits that having lunch by herself can be more enjoyable than dinner (“especially if it’s going to be a long meal”), the lack of somebody to talk to at the table can be compensated for in a number of ways.
“You’re never alone when you have your phone,” she says. “More often than not, I have a book or magazine in tow, but Twitter can be entertaining if you’re eating something exciting on your own and want to share your experience.”
Dan Vaux-Nobes (AKA food blogger Essex Eating) says he has always been treated well when dining alone – and it gets easier the more he does it.
“I often suspect restaurants are suspicious that solo diners are some kind of reviewer or inspector, but there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s good to keep them on their toes!
“I guess eating alone is a bit daunting at first, especially when you swing into some swanky Michelin-starred place on your own, but it doesn’t take long before you start enjoying the experience. Nowadays, I love it; it’s a real treat. You get to really concentrate on the food and the service without any distraction. Don’t get me wrong, though; I like dining out with other people, too!”
For Chris Jorden – known on Twitter as @PXandTarts for his tweets about his dining experiences – social media and smartphones add another dimension to eating out alone.
“It is possible to immerse yourself in your smartphone if you feel self-conscious, or simply don’t feel like socialising. Many solo diners will use Twitter or Instagram to document their meals to the extent that, for many people, eating out and social media are inextricably linked. Whether that is a good thing or not is debatable, but it can certainly be enjoyable – if not addictive.
“Eating out, and food in general, is an increasingly popular hobby, almost an obsession, and I think going out for a meal alone can give more of an opportunity to focus on the flavour and presentation of the food and wine without distractions; although, of course, a meal with a group of friends can be enjoyable for different reasons.”
Modern lifestyles, and the ways restaurants reflect them, play a big part in this increasing trend, thinks Chris.
“Attitudes certainly seem to be changing, and I know many people who are happy to eat alone these days. I think the rise of more informal places to eat probably played a part in this, and also the fact that people are increasingly busy – dining alone can be an opportunity to have a bit of time to oneself, and switch off from work or responsibilities for a couple of hours.”
In the past, the more savvy restaurant staff might think a lone diner could signify that they are being inspected for a restaurant guide or perhaps a review, meaning those unidentified solo customers might get more attentive service. On the flip side, though, eating alone can also mean you get given that less-than-coveted table in the corner, right next to the toilets…
So, how should restaurants be catering for the growing number of solo diners?
“I guess the main thing is not to treat them differently from those in groups,” says Chris. “Good front of house will sense whether to engage you or leave you to it.
“I think most solo diners probably don’t want to be sat next to a large, loud party, so finding a balance between avoiding this and not just chucking them out of the way by the toilets is key. It’s hard because, ultimately, a solo diner will likely take up as much space as a couple, so that can mean reduced revenue for the restaurant.”
Meanwhile, Dan thinks lone diners are something to be considered when thinking about the layout of a restaurant in the first place.
“My tip would be to design restaurants with seating up at the bar, or overlooking the kitchen [think Paco Tapas and Box-E]. It’s really nice to sit there and chat with the bar or kitchen crew whilst watching your food being cooked.”
Shonette adds: “A couple of times I’ve been seated with another solo diner, which is understandable if a place is busy, but really quite uncomfortable if you’re not expecting to have dinner with a stranger!”
Kate Hawkings, co-owner of Bellita in Bristol, travels a lot, so eating alone is a regular occurrence for her and, she’s noticed, for a growing number of other diners, too.
“I’ve always felt comfortable – and really enjoyed – eating alone,” she says. “Good restaurants often make a bit of extra effort if there’s a solo diner; I remember once being offered a newspaper to read at a swanky restaurant and being very impressed by that touch. Now, though, I think it’s far more common, so such touches aren’t as noticeable – or as necessary.”
In these parts, with new restaurants popping up at a rate of knots, you can’t always wait for a pal to be free before you make that first visit. And why should you? We say go it alone, and enjoy it all the more for it.