Solo dining part 2

BFM does it all the time
Tables for one – the rise of solo dining
By Barbara Balfour
Ottawa, Canada
24 July 2014 Last updated at 00:00

Amsterdam restaurant Eenmaal only has tables for one
Not too long ago solo dining was synonymous with a greasy takeaway scoffed down in the car, or room service consumed in the sterile anonymity of your hotel room.

This was preferable to the thought of dining alone in a proper restaurant, and the associated stigma of being seen as a “friendless loser”.

Some of that sense of unease surrounding booking a table for one no doubt dates back to our childhoods, when sitting alone in the high school cafeteria was tantamount to social suicide.

Yet today, a growing number of us live alone – including one out of every seven adults in the US – so the stigma surrounding solo dining has started to dissipate, says Aaron Allen, a Florida-based global restaurant consultant.

With more and more people choosing to dine out alone, Mr Allen says savvy restaurants around the world are trying to make themselves more welcoming to solo diners, for example by fitting more bar seating, or encouraging waiting staff to be more attentive to customers sitting on their own.

Is there still some stigma attached to dining out on your own?
Lunch on the house

Ottawa restaurateur Stephen Beckta says fine dining establishments should see a solo diner as “the greatest compliment a restaurant can receive”.

His three restaurants – Beckta, Play and Gezellig – are magnets for solo diners in the Canadian capital.

In addition to having the extensive bar seating and thoughtful service that restaurant experts such as Mr Allen highlight, Mr Beckta’s three outlets also enable solo diners to busy themselves with tasting menus of up to eight small courses.

Mr Beckta says: “Solo diners choose to eat with us for the pleasure of dining – not because they were roped into a celebration or a date – so why would we not embrace them?”

And while his staff are happy to have a good chat with people dining on their own, he says guests can request to be left alone.

“If you’re a solo diner, my suggestion is to ask for the things that are going to make you happy,” says Mr Beckta.

“A table out of the way? A seat at the bar? In conversation or left alone? A good restaurant wants to make you happy.”

Solo diners at Stephen Beckta’s three restaurants can sit at a bar counter and talk to staff and fellow diners
Mr Beckta’s love for solo diners also goes as far as his three eateries offering a free lunch to guests who have booked a date reservation for two, only to find themselves stood up.

“How else would you want to turn around their experience if not to take care of their bill?” he says.

But do any diners pretend to have been stood up just so they can get a free meal?

“We’ve never had anyone try to take advantage of our policy, though we don’t extensively advertise it,” Mr Beckta says.

“We just trust our customers, and have found that if you do the right thing by them, they’ll take care of you in return.”

Purchasing power

Aaron Allen says there are a number of societal reasons behind the growth in the number of solo diners.

“Divorce rates are higher, and people are waiting longer before getting married,” he says.

“[As a result], there are way more singles in the marketplace, and they’re much more affluent in terms of what they spend on food and living expenses.”

Chefs at the Top of the Market restaurant are encouraged to chat to people dining on their own
Official figures confirm that the purchasing power of single people is vast, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculating that singletons in the US spend $1.9 trillion (£1.1tn) per year.

In London almost a third of homes are now occupied by just one person, while in New York and Paris it is more than half. And in cities such as Stockholm, 60% of residents live on their own.

While most of these people do of course go out for meals with friends and relatives, many are also increasingly choosing to book tables for one.

Provide a show

At the San Diego restaurant Top of the Market, executive chef Ivan Flowers was brought in last year to make some changes, with one main aim being to increase the number of people dining alone.

He felt that while the eatery already had bar seating in front of the open kitchen, it was underutilised because the chefs weren’t interacting enough with the customers.

Mr Flowers says solo diners sitting by the kitchen now get “to see a show”, which includes cooking demos, free tastings and conversations with the chefs.

“If you catch our eye, we’ll ask, ‘Would you like to try that?’

Dining alone at least means that no-one asks if they can try your food
“Our solo diners love watching professional cooking at that level and speed. When there’s a pause, they’ll start asking questions like ‘I made this the other day, how can I prevent it from burning?’

“We’ll take their email to load them up with the information [they are after]. We do whatever it takes to make it a memorable night.

Solo diners in London will soon be able to dine out at an Eenmaal restaurant
“Our solo customers forget they are alone – because they’ve never been alone from the moment they stepped in.”

Deliberate disconnection

Yet for those solo diners who do actually want to feel alone, there’s Eenmaal, a pop-up restaurant in Amsterdam that features only tables for one.

Created by Dutch designer Marina van Goor, the restaurant has been fully booked every night since it opened last summer. Sister branches will be opening in Antwerp, London, Berlin and New York later this year.

Ms van Goor says: “I noticed that in our society, there is no room for being alone in a public space, unless you are going somewhere.

“I wanted to create an attractive place where disconnection is okay, especially in our hyper-connected society.

“I chose to set up a restaurant, because eating alone is the most extreme form of feeling disconnected in our culture.”

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Solo dining part 1

The BFM does it all the time!!
Your solo dining experiences
31 July 2014 Last updated at 00:07

A recent article looking at the growth of solo dining prompted many emails from readers sharing their own experiences.

The story explored the rise in the number of people eating out on their own, and how restaurants around the world are trying to make themselves more welcoming to such individual diners.

Here are some of your stories on solo dining.

Chris Scruggs, UK: I remember a time, only a few years ago, when I found the idea of eating out alone to be a depressing prospect. I would view solo diners as sad and lonely people. Now, I eat out by myself quite often, and sometimes prefer it to the company of others. One thing more than any other has made this change to my perspective – a smartphone. I suppose solo diners really aren’t solo any more at all. I don’t know whether this is good or bad.

William Wohlsen’s lunch at Red Riding Hood’s Basket in Massachusetts
William Wohlsen, Massachusetts, US: For some reason I never felt at all self-conscious about requesting a table for one. And it’s much better than room service or fast food.

Stephen Sakulsky, Los Angeles: I have spent the majority of my meals solo. For me it’s the best way to experience, and have, a food and wine focused meal. There are no distractions to the dining experience. No people talking and no opinions. It’s about the food and wine and nothing else. It’s great.

Annette Allen, Buckinghamshire, UK: I love eating out on my own. I travel a lot for work, and on holidays, on my own, and often eat out solo. I can choose to enjoy food in peace, or chat to other diners and restaurant staff. Also I don’t get criticised if I have dessert, and I can just stare outside the window, if I like – I enjoy people watching. In 30 years of doing this, I’ve noticed a big sea change in the past decade in the way that solo women diners are treated. We’re finally treated with respect, not someone to be hidden away, so I’m often offered a window seat.

Meal machines: Order your meal at the push of a button in Tokyo
Emma Lui, UK: While working as an English teacher in Tokyo for 18 months, I found myself in a country where solo dining appeared to be the norm and not the exception. [Noodle] restaurants near the train station would always be filled with rows of “salary men” in the evenings, with worn faces and loosened ties from their working day, quietly tapping on their smartphones and stoically shovelling rice and noodles into their mouths. I can think of at least one ramen chain where there were special individual wooden booths for customers to eat their ramen in private!

Tokyo certainly embraces the lone diner. Even when you order food, you don’t need to speak to a waitress or server. Of course there are places with traditional menus, but there’s also a very efficient Japanese way of dining. There are ticket machines either just outside or inside the restaurant, and you insert your money, press what you want, and hand the printed ticket over to the worker in the kitchen area. It did strike me as a foreigner living in Tokyo how easy it was to live entire days without needing to speak a single word.

Jon Goodwin, Glasgow: Although I should love to eat out at fine restaurants by myself, I have always regarded solo diners as very deeply sad, and I should almost die of shame to be amongst their number.

Richard, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire: Although I dine alone infrequently, I find the experience completely different from dining in company. It allows me to give more of my attention to the food and its presentation. I can drift off into my own thoughts and not have to worry about seeming to be rude or inattentive. Also I can eat at my own pace, as there is no-one else waiting for me to finish, nor am I waiting for another diner. As an occasional event I really do enjoy dining alone, but I wouldn’t want it as a regular occurrence!

Eric Anker spends more than half the year travelling for work so enjoys many solo meals
Eric Anker, Tehachapi, California: I eat nearly every meal alone when I am on the road. I travel more than 200 days a year for work. Once I was [sitting by the kitchen] at a restaurant, and I was watching the prep cook make a dessert. He was caramelising the sugar coating when the tart caught fire. While trying to put out the flaming tart the cook spread the fire to his prep board. Quickly he grabbed the board and shoved it into the trash bin… and yes that also flared up. The head cook calmly walked over with a bowl of water and put the fire out. Of course the two other diners and I were rolling with laughter with the proceeding entertainment.

Tom Cook, Bristol, UK: I hate eating alone in a restaurant. I have to do it every so often when I travel on business and it is always a trial, to be ended as quickly as possible. What are you supposed to do in the half hour it often takes from arriving to having your first course served if you’re on your own? Being overseas only makes it worse – even if you found someone to talk to, chances are the conversation would falter on the language barrier.

Dung Nguyen, Vietnam: In my country, people rarely dine out alone. I can’t remember the last time I went to a restaurant alone, because I feel so pathetic. I think it is a great idea to open restaurants specially for solo diners. Then people on their own would not feel like a fish out of water. I wish there was a chain of solo dinner restaurants in my country.

Amanda Hazleton, UK: I’ve always hated eating out by myself, but if I must, I usually suffer through in uneventful silence. One time when visiting central London on my own, the waitress kept mentioning the fact that I was alone. She kept asking if I was OK by myself and if someone was coming, even though I had asked for a table for one and told her several times I wasn’t expecting anyone. She acted like I had been stood up. I hate eating alone even more now, for fear of having another experience like that.

Jon Moody, Houston, Texas: In America I’ve noticed often that I’m not the only one eating lunch, and sometimes dinner, alone. I admit I enjoy eating alone on many workdays, especially on those days I need to get away from work, and I’m too far from home. And when I don’t want to eat with co-workers, especially if we are working on the same project. However, I do wish there was an app [for] people in the same restaurant or general area [who are] eating alone and would not mind a non-romantic lunch where one could practise the art of conversation (which seems impossible at work or home these days).

Karen van Hoey Smith’s candlelit dinner for one in Tenby
Karen van Hoey Smith, UK: Until I moved to Japan for five years I would have been too embarrassed to eat out alone, but knowing no-one and just remembering how nice good food can be irrespective of company I went out… and loved it!

I am currently on a spontaneous trip to Tenby (alone), am in a gorgeous 10th Century restaurant and am the only solo diner. I’ve had a few pitiful looks from some diners but the foreigners all seem impressed with it. The staff have been perfect. Attentive and smiling and I feel comfortable. The barman downstairs treated me totally normally and I’ve had a great time so far. Tenby rocks! 😉

I don’t usually have anything like a phone or book with me… this is unusual. I like enjoying the experience. I like to feel the cutlery, look at the room and live in the moment. Not many people do… food’s here… bye.

Kevin Leah, Sussex, UK: The biggest solo dining issue I come across is eating in establishments where you have to order at a counter. You have to leave your table to order and run the risk that someone will take the table whilst you are ordering. Or if you need to pop to the loo, you risk the table being cleared of your half-eaten meal. To avoid this I take props with me to make it clear the table is occupied. Nothing of any value usually. An extra jumper or coat. An old paperback and a magazine.

Augusto Murillo, Hawaii: It is not the customer that feels uncomfortable about solo diners, but the restaurant owners themselves, in my opinion. The owners are afraid of having an empty seat opposite you, and losing out on another meal they could bill. And so they will not give an open arms welcome, especially if you dare to choose a better table from where they first sat you.

Once again the BFM shares the food love!!! Ciao down now!!!

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Please like my page, share and spread the food love to all your contacts