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The Art of Solo Dining: Table for One

Posted by CMH Gourmand on July 31, 2010

“A lot of people find solo dining an unpleasant experience, and it is certainly true that many restaurants can make it intimidating as they lead you through a crowded restaurant to a seat where you will be so conspicuous that you should have a large neon sign above your head reading “Sir William of No Mates”. Others in the restaurant will stare at you, many will compose their facial features to express pity, others contempt. All will be hugely glad they are not in your situation.

-Simon Makumdar, in his book Eat My Globe

It is frequently brought to my attention that I am atypical. Recently, I was speaking with a female friend and she shared she has never seen a movie by herself because it freaks her out. We then started to discuss dining and the solo question came up again – many people are uncomfortable eating alone inside and outside their abode.

While I think any meal is better shared with friends, by circumstance and my own nature I frequently dine alone. Apparently I do so much more often than a typical person. I do have some advantages in the area. I am an only child so I am well practiced at entertaining myself. I have lived alone almost as long as I have lived in the company of others. Because I have rarely had the luck in life to have instant access to people that have the combination of the time, money and interest to pursue my passions to the extreme extent that I do, I often head off on my own since I figure if I wait for someone to be ready…..I’ll keep waiting. As for temperament, for those of you that follow the Myers Briggs, I am an INTJ, a rare personality type known for being fiercely independent.

All of the this being said, I decided to start asking around about the art of eating alone. This is a summary of what I found (accuracy is +/- 91%). Women are more uncomfortable with dining alone than men. Most of us seem comfortable dining out sans company at breakfast and lunch. Dinner seems to be the apex of discomfort. Friday and Saturday night solo dining is absolutely feared especially if it is at a fine dining establishment such as Alana’s or the Refectory.

For those of you new to the world of solo dining, I would suggest reading the book – Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant. The book is a buffet of stories about eating, cooking and dining alone. For some a meal shielded from the world is a can of cold refried beans and for others it is an extravagant meal without the pomp and circumstance needed by the presence of others. I discovered the writer/blogger Erin Ergenbright in the book and have found her to be a great source for Portland area dining establishments and advice in general (guess where one of my next trips will be).

It you are ready to test the waters of independent dining – here are a few suggestions from years of experience:

Take a magazine, not a book.

A book says to people – “don’t approach me, I am deep in thought” and it says, “I am a nerd, I eat alone all the time”. That can be a good thing – if I don’t want to be bothered, I take a book. I more often take a magazine along for the meal. Magazines are easier manhandle and maneuver around appetizers, entrees and cocktails. If you spill on a magazine, no big deal, it you spill on a book – well – it may bring you to tears or get you in deep trouble with the library. You are likely to read through a magazine while eating a meal which allows the opportunity to leave the place with two accomplishments – a completed magazine and a finished meal. A magazine says, come interrupt me… if you must, while a book says – I am here to hide so don’t come and fill my water glass when I am thirsty. Magazines are great for quick bursts of distraction between bites.

Buy an iPhone.
I hate those people. You know them. People that cannot and will not disconnect from their electronic worlds and must interface and interact with their handheld devices constantly – even during a conversation or in the company of their companions. Not cool. I have started to do this on occasion and I think I have caught myself most times. When dining alone, a “crackberry” is OK, but an iPhone is so much more fun. It is also the perfect tool for a food writer or food enthusiast. Having quick access to notes, a camera, the Internet, Urbanspoon, etc., makes discreet food research much more viable. While between courses you can make lists, check e-mail, twitter about your meal instead of twittering your thumbs and have an quick and easy way to avoid unwanted attention or conversation. This is the perfect tool for creating a “shield” from others at a bar. Or it can be a quick way to strike up a conversation if someone is looking for directions or hoping to settle a bet.

Sit at the bar

Most restaurants will serve you the full menu at the bar or in some cases offer an even better and cheaper bar menu. In between bites if there is too much dead time – you can always drink. Bartenders are used to the fine art of chatting with customers that want the company or drifting away when chatter is not on your plate for the night.

Take a notebook
As much as I love my MacBook, when I need to get big thinking done or reason through a challenge, a notebook and a pen can’t be beat. If I am not writing and plotting then I still have plenty to do. I find my best thoughts come when I am unplugged and only focused on one thing – eating. I am constantly making lists of things I need to do when I plug back in. I find the piece of paper a good guide to get everything done. And I find crumbling the list and pitching it in the recycling bin provides a tangible sense of accomplishment, you can’t get that from a deleted word document.

Don’t chat on your cell phone

Sitting in an eatery chatting on your phone is rude and among my biggest pet peeves. It disrupts digestion (thanks Alana). I would love for public places to bring back phone booths to serve as containment areas for long, loud cell phone talkers so they can take their conversations into a private place instead of a public forum. If you are bored between courses, try the strategies I have listed above or send a text. Unless someone is dying there is no reason why I need to listen to your conversation in the small spaces of a restaurant…take your phone and yourself outside.

Surefire solo dining experiences:

OK, now that you are mentally prepared and have some strategies for killing time between courses, here are a few suggestions for your solo flight into solitary dining.

Northstar Cafe
Northstar caters to large parties and individual diners with several types of eating spaces. There are large communal tables where people can intermingle. There are also round counters with a center placed pillar to shield from eye contact and other counters placed at the windows facing out to the views of the street. At Northstar, you place your order at the counter, get a number so your meal can be delivered to you and while you are waiting there are plenty of magazines to read for free or buy for later.

I am deeply devoted to Deepwood. Their bar menu and cocktail selections provide variety at a good value. If you have time to kill between bites – just read the menu and the wine list – each provide entertainment for twenty minutes or more. The bar staff can talk food and spirits in depth if you are looking for some education to pass your time.

Nancy’s is the original eat it and beat it destination in Clintonville. For dinner, you have one or two choices for your meal. So you do not need to waste time or conversation with the ordering process. You could probably get by with just pointing if need be. You pick what you want to eat. You eat it. And then, you beat it. With an empty stool and some focus you could be in and out in under five minutes. Or if it is slow, you can leisurely hang out, read the paper and talk local comings and goings to your heart’s content.

If you have more tips, please share them.

9 Responses to “The Art of Solo Dining: Table for One”

  1. Thanks for helping to get an encouraging word about solo dining!

    Here’s another tip:

    If possible, make a reservation. Just the act of doing so will set you apart as a discerning diner. Most solo diners do not take the time to do so.

    It signals to a restaurant how important your dining experience is to you, plus your concern about how and where you spend your hard earned cash.

  2. Yeah, I’m an only child too, and living by myself up until 9 years ago when I finally got married, and it doesn’t bother me one bit to eat alone at a restaurant or watch a movie by myself. I’ve even done a drive-in by myself. I really didn’t understand until much later in life that this was considered strange. Even though I’m married, my wife doesn’t want to see some of the movies I want to watch, so I have carte blanche to go by myself.

    Sometimes I need to go by myself.

  3. Jess said

    Also an only child with a full understanding of the “I want to do it, and if no one else wants to go, I’ll go by myself!” mentality. My mom is an avid solo diner with a good book in hand.

    If I may, though, remind solo diners to reward good service with a hefty tip. Sure, there are plenty of reasons to eat solo, and sure, the restaurant should appreciate any and all business, but from a girl working her way through school as a waitress, seeing a solo diner head to a table is pretty disappointing. Generally, it means half the tip for the same amount of work and good service, and a table that is occupied often times longer than a larger party because of the book, paperwork, ect they brought along. The conversation can be killer too. I need not know why you don’t have a date, how your entire work week was, details of your eating habits, ect.

    I guess there’s no reason to care if you don’t frequent a restaurant, but if you are a regular, I can assure you that the staff will remember your face, your habits and your tipping, most especially if you’re a solo diner. Mr. Jones always gets the sausage appetizer, a full entree and whiskey, and shares polite, appropriate conversation with his server, and tips more than 20%. I love seeing him at the door. He’s a delight. Mrs. Smith brings her spread sheets and paperwork, drinks water and eats a $7 salad, requires multiple refills and takes each opportunity to complain about her spread sheets, and then tips $1.50 for her three hours of dining. I see her coming and start rallying the servers to see who hasn’t had her recently so the displeasure is spread evenly.


  4. Tim said

    Jim–I am not crazy about having lunch alone. If I decide to treat myself and can’t find a companion, I will usually go and sit at the bar or counter (Frish’s, Bob Evans). While not on topic, I was hoping to see a review of Porter’s Pub (you probably already know it is in where Azteca’s used to be). Since it is your ‘hood, I figured you’d made a visit, but searched in vain for it on this site. Went for lunch today (not alone) and the sandwiches were outstanding. The beer list was well diversified as well. Check it out!

  5. Molly said

    As someone who travels A LOT for work, I have had to learn to dine alone – while I hated it initially (I am the oldest of seven children who is used to constant noise!), I have learned to embrace it and actually find myself looking forward to it on occasion. Sitting at the bar is a great way to get to know a restaurant a little better and you can often engage with other solo diners (if you are so inclined).

    I also brought back the note writing to my life – I buy blank notecards and take the opportunity to hand write notes to friends – there is nothing more fun to me than finding a note from a friend in my mailbox! And, I always make sure that my service is rewarded – to note Jess’ comment, it is important to acknowledge great service!

    I am a fan of Deepwood but have not spent a lot of time there – I think that might change soon based on your comments!

  6. Anna said

    Hey Jim–You’ve got an ESFP here. I’ve never eaten a meal alone ever (unless you count scarfing down fast food in my car on my way to another event. I can’t even stand it when I’m meeting friends in the cafeteria for lunch and they’re a minute late leaving me to sit unattended for even the briefest of moments.

    As a side note, my beloved Aron is also an INTJ.

  7. Mindy said

    I’m the youngest of 3 and have never really had a problem with solo dining or movie watching. Like someone said above, I never even knew it was strange for a long time. I also, however, lived in Europe for a year and didn’t know anyone. I had no problems just going to a cafe and writing in my journal. I’ve never been one to not go out to eat or to a movie just because I couldn’t find anyone to go with me…

    Now that I’m a mom, I absolutely LOVE going out to eat by myself. My husband doesn’t mind staying home with the baby, and I’ll get a little time to myself to get something to eat or see a movie (and typically the eating out means ordering something to go for him).

  8. uhockey said

    As my blog indicates, eating alone is often better than eating with others – especially in the upper tier of fine dining. The servers know you are there for the food and the experience – not to flirt with your date or have a conversation over a nice plate – and both the front and back of the house work very hard to please. Alinea, The French Laundry, Per Se, Robuchon, Savoy – I’ve done them all solo and never once felt I was being treated worse (usually better, actually) than anyone else in the room. Obviously mileage may vary on lower end establishments, but even at mid-level places I think solo dining is sublime.

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