Dining alone with expertise

By Paula Johnson

Who dines alone if they don’t have to? Open Table, the most popular online booking site, has experienced a whopping 62 percent increase in solo bookings over the past two years, so somebody’s doing it, and it doesn’t seem to be just those who are forced into it by travel. When I read this statistic my first thought was that dining alone, for me, would be a real frustration. I obsess over talking about food—the experience, the flavors, the presentation, the service—to an excessive degree at times. But as I reflected, I also recalled times where I was alone, and the experiences stand out in memorably sharp detail and clarity. These were times when I was totally in the moment and one with the experience, and that seems to be the key to making dining solo something to be savored rather than dreaded. It really can be about (and was for me on those occasions) the pleasure of one’s own company, where being alone is distinct from being lonely, and where “me” time is honored and celebrated.

On the other hand, if the openness to a new experience and interaction with others is the goal when dining alone, then going solo here is something distinctly different than the aforementioned. Both are valid, and both require a little finesse to get it right. I’ll offer a few tips of my own, and observations, and some wisdom from a fellow food lovers Sarah and Lisa, both of whom I met at restaurant events. They admitted that dining solo can feel intimidating (I felt that way too the first few times) and conspicuous at first, sort of like you’re in junior high and you wore the wrong outfit. Baby steps are fine—start with breakfast or lunch. When you graduate to dinner, you’ll face the following fork, if you’ll excuse the pun:

The Bar, Or Not The Bar, That Is The Question

There are so many plusses to grabbing a bar stool for dining. If I’m in the mood for socializing and meeting people, it’s the bar for me. Choosing a place with great cocktails is a conversation starter with the bartender, and with fellow patrons. Then there’s TV with what seems are non-stop sporting events to comment on and encourage discussion. Most everywhere (with a few exceptions), dining is welcomed at the bar (and often a more casual bar menu is offered instead of a full blown multi course meal.) There are a few do’s and don’ts however. Dining at the bar should be regarded similarly to being seated on an airplane. You should make an effort to mirror your seatmate’s level of enthusiasm for conversation. And the bar (or the dining room) is NEVER the place to return your voice mails.

If You Dine in the Dining Room

Getting a good table is key to the comfort of your experience. Insist on a place on the perimeter of the room or in the corner—don’t accept something in the middle of the room or that lousy table near the server station or bathroom. Timing is also key. When you dine solo, go when there’s still energy in the dining room, but not at a peak time. Try opting for a slightly later dinner—you won’t feel rushed, your server will have time to answer your questions, and the people watching will still be interesting. However, pay attention to closing time so as not to feel like they are waiting on you so that they can vacuum and lock up.

I mentioned not returning calls no matter where you sit, and this brings up having a laptop or phone during dinner at all. I strongly advocate for a book, because it’s the perfect time to not multitask and mindlessly scroll and be present in the moment. A book (or a device if need be), is also the perfect cover to repel any unwanted or excessive attention from other patrons, or even overly helpful servers. A simple, “I’ve been looking forward to catching up on the end of this chapter all day—I’ll let you know when I need something” is all that’s needed.

The Trend Towards Communal Tables

Too much food can be a problem for solo diners who want to sample several courses. Some restaurants are responding to the demand in interesting ways. (If these don’t exist where you’re dining, you can still order multiple courses but request that half be boxed before serving). In New York, Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of vegetarian hot spot, Dirt Candy, observes, “It was weird to look over and see some single person eating next to you ten years ago. Now, it’s pretty normal.” With that in mind, Cohen included an L-shaped bar in her latest renovation (The original Dirt Candy didn’t have a bar at all.) On Valentine’s Day last year, Cohen not only reserved all bar seats for solo diners, but she also created a menu just for them. Are there local Dayton options for communal style dining? “I really like the serpentine shaped communal table at Wheat Penney, as well as the long tables at Old Scratch,” observed Lisa.

Table For One Please

Sarah offered a few more bits of advice to get started if you haven’t yet gone out by yourself, “Try the bar, even if you are not drinking alcohol. Also, establish a pattern to your visits, especially if you are going to a small place. I was definitely intimidated when I started dining out alone, but it has honestly been such an amazing confidence builder. I had previously gone to movies alone, but never done anything so interactive by myself. I now do a lot more things as a single participant.”

It’s not always going to be great every time, but if like Sarah, you find a place that you feel at home and welcome, you will be treated like royalty. Dining alone can allow you the “me” time that is healthy for your soul and psyche, and might just open you to a whole host of new experiences. Bon Appétit!

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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