Most restaurants set tables for groups. Certain reservation booking systems only offer seating for parties of two. But, despite the fact that restaurants are designed as social spaces, complete with menus of “share plates,” some restaurants are embracing the presence of the solo diner. “I think it’s a real compliment,” New York City restaurateur Will Guidara says of solo guests. “It’s saying ‘I’m here at the restaurant. It’s my number one priority.’”
Because of that enthusiasm, “it is kind of a rule [at his NYC restaurant Eleven Madison Park] to go above and beyond to make those experiences special” for those dining alone, Guidara says. And other chefs and restaurant owners are taking steps to ensure those eating alone feel like they’re more than lost potential for a bigger bill.
For eight years now, chef Amanda Cohen has honored solo diners during an annual “Solo Diner’s Week” at her New York City restaurant Dirt Candy. Every February, the week of Valentine’s Day, she develops a set menu for people eating alone at the vegetarian restaurant. “I’ve certainly been a solo diner myself and restaurants are inherently designed for two people to eat together,” the chef says. As she sees it, people dining alone “shouldn’t be punished.” [Disclosure: Amanda Cohen has contributed to Eater.]
“Solo Diner’s Week” solves a few problems. First, diners eating alone are explicitly welcomed, during a time of year when tables for two are likely the most common request (reservations booking system Open Table reported that 81 percent of its Valentine’s Day reservations were for two-tops in 2015), and the $75 seven-course menu of smaller portions allows diners to try multiple dishes, a perk of eating with a group that solo diners often miss out on.
The tradition started as a reaction to Valentine’s Day prix-fixes that valued couples over single people, but she says the week “became sort of joyous.” This year, the restaurant is observing Valentine’s Day for the first time, but this doesn’t mean Cohen appreciates parties of one any less. In fact, she says, the solo diner can be good business. “Solo guests tend to return over and over again,” she explains.
But guests will only return again on their own if a restaurant makes them feel welcome. Eater NY senior critic Ryan Sutton dines alone often, both at high-end tasting menu restaurants and at everyday spots. He notes that there’s no reason restaurants shouldn’t be comfortable places for a single person: “If they believe in the power of the product, the power of their cuisine, should a restaurant not be a complete, entertaining, and intellectually captivating experience by itself?”
The chefs and restaurateurs that pay attention to solo dining recognize that the people who choose to eat alone at their restaurants are often looking for a memorable experience. Sara Kramer, co-chef and co-owner at LA’s essential Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant Kismet, remembers a man visiting from Florida who walked miles from his hotel to eat at Kismet solo because he had recently been inspired by the word. “He was telling the story about how he just got the word ‘kismet’ tattooed on his arm, and it was such a fun, great moment,” she says. “We’ve got this guy who’s excited to be here, and then because of the community feel of the place, we’re able to talk to this guy and make him feel really special.”
Guidara says the role of his staff when it comes to individual diners at Eleven Madison Park (which netted the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Service Award in 2016) and the Nomad, which just opened a second location in LA, is basically the same as with any guest: To “[try] to do our best to understand what they’re looking for out of the experience, why they’re there, and try to give them the best version of that experience as we can.”
But “there’s no one we love giving free stuff to more than people who are coming alone,” Guidara says. “Whether it’s a nice glass of wine we think is going to perfectly complement that dish, or a little mid-course [item] — something to make what could be an ordinary experience veer towards the extraordinary.”
The solo dining philosophy is similar at Balthazar, restaurateur Keith McNally’s essential New York City bistro. There, solo diners are likely to get a glass of Champagne with their dinner. “It’s a nice little touch, a nice little surprise,” says Zouheir Louhaichy, Balthazar’s assistant general manager, adding that the host staff also try to seat single walk-ins as soon as possible, whether at the bar or at a table in the dining room.
Chicago-based chef Ryan McCaskey also pays particular attention to people eating alone at his two-Michelin-starred restaurant Acadia. But his initial motives for doing so weren’t entirely about the customer. “You freak out because you think it’s a Michelin inspector or it’s Forbes or somebody reviewing us,” he says. “So we want to pay extra attention to those solo diners.”
The Acadia staff used to implement a special protocol when guests dined alone, swapping in the most experienced servers and sometimes even devise a special menu. “We used to go kind of crazy with it,” McCaskey says, but six years in, the Acadia team no longer worry that the next solo diner will make or break the restaurant. “All of our customers sitting in the dining room are important to us and they all should be treated and regarded as VIP. We want them to have just as good an experience as a four-top,” McCaskey says now.
Acadia does still give solo diners a certain amount of special treatment. There are iPads on hand for people eating alone who want to read with their meals, and sometimes, guests will be invited back to the kitchen for a special course, like a lobster roll with caviar or ice cream and Champagne. The perk is there for “anybody who is industry or VIP, or maybe they’re just geeking out on the experience.”
But there are subtler ways service staff can welcome single guests. For every industry professional dining out for research, there are those guests simply seeking solitude, and staff need to know how to read the table (or bar seat). “Some of them want to chat, some of them don’t want to chat. You just want [the interaction] to be normal,” Louhaichy says. “You don’t want them to feel pity because they’re by themselves.”
Solo diners at Make It Nice Restaurants, the group that includes Eleven Madison Park and the Nomad, may be taking themselves out for a long-awaited dinner at Eleven Madison Park or in need of a convenient meal while on a business trip at the Nomad. Determining which situation is in play is important to ensuring a good experience. “To build a relationship in the beginning you need to enter into it on a foundation of formality, and then you can’t become too comfortable with people until they’ve given us permission to let our guard down a little bit,” Guidara explains. “I think with solo diners that’s especially important because maybe we can be their company.”
One restaurant concept removes this guessing game from the dining equation completely, making it perhaps the most judgment-free place for a solo diner. At Japanese ramen chain Ichiran, guests sit at individual walled booths and a ticket system ensures minimal interaction with servers. According to Hiroshi Kokubun, marketing coordinator for Ichiran U.S.A., the concept was originally designed to “let our customer focus on our ramen without worrying about their surroundings.” The fact that this idea makes it the perfect place for people eating alone is just a happy coincidence.
Ichiran has locations in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and as of 2016, Brooklyn, New York. Kokubun says that although he had heard that American people don’t like to eat alone, people in New York seem to enjoy the concept. Sutton, at least, is one of them. “Not to make an argument that all tasting menus should be like Ichiran, but I think there’s something to be said for spending time alone with food and contemplating it without having to have the added distraction of a social encounter,” the critic says.
Although most dining establishments will play host to groups of two come Wednesday, restaurants are more than the backdrop for romantic and social rendezvous. Good restaurants are also artistic endeavors, and much like seeing a movie or exhibition, dining out alone can be a completely fulfilling experience — as long as the restaurant knows how to make it one.
Monica Burton is Eater’s associate restaurant editor. Marne Grahlman is a freelance illustrator from Canada; she paints conceptual pictures about feelings and moments.