This story was originally published in 2018, before COVID-19.
No. I’ve been doing this since 1995.
Between 1995 and today, I’ve worked in restaurants — in both front- and back-of-house — had jobs in restaurant marketing, restaurant publicity, and eaten thousands of meals in restaurants. Several hundred of those meals were taken alone. I never had an epiphany about it. If you’re not already doing it, go ahead, do it.
I’ve had good and bad experiences as a solo diner, and I’m here to tell you that it’s not always up to the restaurant to make sure you, the diner, have a good experience. It’s also on you to be a good customer. Many of these rules hold true for when you’re dining with another person, or a big group, but there are some particulars to keep in mind when you’re dining alone.
1. Know when to go
Restaurants are in the business of making money so that they can pay their bills. This is not your mother’s dining room table; you do not get to luxuriate in undivided attention. You also don’t get to show up whenever you want and expect a table to be waiting for you. If you know the place you want to dine at is popular and likely to be busy — and you don’t see any reservations online — call ahead to see if they have any cancellations. Failing that, here are a few tips.
My colleague and Eater NY’s senior critic Robert Sietsema tends to go into restaurants early, right when the place opens. Our co-worker Ryan Sutton, the chief critic for Eater NY and a long-time solo diner, almost always goes out to dinner after 9 p.m. He’s a night owl, so this works for him — but it also works well for most restaurants.
With few exceptions, casual and fine-dining restaurants try to fill each seat in the house at least twice for each meal. (Each full seating is called a “turn” in industry parlance.) Because dinner ends up being the most popular time to dine out, let’s drill down into a dinner service. Depending on the style of service and length of the menu, a restaurant will aim to fill the dining room by 6 or 6:30 p.m., assume that set of diners will be done eating by 8:30 or 9 p.m., estimate the amount of time it will take service staff to reset each table, and then try to seat the whole room again by 9 or 9:30 p.m. (This is one reason why it’s so hard to get a coveted 7 or 8 p.m. reservation.)
Solo diners can increase their chance of getting a seat at a busy restaurant by going early, when a restaurant opens at 5 or 5:30 p.m. (before that first turn), or late, after 9:30 p.m. (when a no-show might mean an empty seat for one).
One last thing to try is what I call the third turn. Especially in a large, very busy restaurant, at least some of those tables sat down right at 5 p.m. And at least some of those early diners will be done well before the restaurant needs to make their second turn. If I show up right at 7 or 7:30 p.m., I’ve been able to chat with the host or general manager in order to explain that if a table does open up, I’d be happy to sit, order quickly, and leave within an hour so they can turn that table again by 8:30 or 9 p.m. Sometimes this means agreeing with the host up front that you’ll have vacated the table by a specific time. (NB: Some extremely busy restaurants will already have factored a third turn into their reservations for the night, in which case this move will not work.)
2. Know where to sit
Every frequent solo diner knows that a restaurant with a bar is the best bet. Dining at the bar is fun, if not always comfortable, and it’s easy to strike up a conversation with other diners or the bartender if you’re in the mood to socialize.
Most busy restaurants default to sending single diners (and even couples!) to the bar. This is because they’re trying to optimize how much money they can make on each seat. If a solo diner sits at a table for two, the potential profit on that table gets cut in half. But what if you really do just want a table?
First, see point number one. Second, call ahead and ask. Failing that, it’s time to chat with the maitre’d again. She’s got a lot to juggle, and doesn’t need another annoying person begging for a table, but if you explain that you know she needs the table back at a certain time, and that you won’t hang out too long, she might just find you a quiet table in a corner that’s perfect for one.
3. Don’t linger
So you’ve landed a seat: congratulations. Now, respect everyone’s time. You’re there chiefly to eat, so eat and drink. Heartily, if possible; this is no time to be stingy. And whatever you do, don’t dilly dally. Assuming the restaurant is busy and it was a challenge to get a table or bar stool to yourself in the first place, don’t be that guy that sits there pondering Kierkegaard for three hours. With no one to make conversation with and only your phone or reading material as company, you should be in and out in under 90 minutes.
A note on books: Many essays on dining alone recommend that the solo diner bring a book. That’s fine, just don’t bring one that’s too engrossing. This isn’t a library or a coffee shop. This is a restaurant that needs to keep feeding people in order to make money, so finish that chapter and ask for the check.
4. Be gracious
The restaurant should be treating you as they’d treat any other diner. Assuming they aren’t rushing you, or forgetting about you, or being rude, return their graciousness. Be polite. Return small talk made by the server or bartender. Thank everyone, especially the host or hostess, on your way out.
5. Be a regular
If you’re treated well, and had a good time, why not return? The staff will likely remember you, and after a few meals they’ll treat you like a regular. Regulars get all kinds of perks.
At really great restaurants, even first time single diners are treated like family. Often, a glass of champagne, an extra amuse bouche, or a dessert will appear unprompted, and the manager might come by to say hello, welcome you in, or welcome you back.
6. Next time, bring a friend
Besides going again and again, a fantastic way to show that you appreciate how the restaurant has treated you as a single diner is to reward them by bringing a friend or two the next time you pop by. They’ll appreciate the extra business and your friends will appreciate the extra attention they might get thanks to your status as a regular.