Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Sole food

In a world where people living alone is on the increase, where couples divorce and single parent households soar, one of the best things about supperclubs is the mixed tables. Not all supperclubs do this, some imitate high street restaurants and you book a in 'table for four' or 'table for two'.
But when you think of where you can meet other people, a conventional restaurant with separate tables is not a place that springs to mind. Even if you are in a relationship, let's face it, we've all seen those couples in restaurants looking bored shitless with each other, eating almost in silence.
I relish the freedom that a mixed table gives: the opportunity to meet other people. It's more like the pre-revolutionary (French that is) table d'hote.

So what do single people do if they want to eat out? At a conventional restaurant you have few options; in fact you are more likely to choose a cheap or chain restaurant to feel less awkward. Or you can take a large book and pretend to be engrossed in it while you scoff. This also gives off the message that you don't want to be bothered, useful for single women.
If you do have the courage to go to a good restaurant on your own, all too frequently lone diners are sat at the worst table, seated next to the toilets or serving area. Wait staff often look down their noses snootily at lone diners
"Just one?"
"Are you waiting for someone?"
You feel embarrassed enough without unspoken billy-no-mates or 'left on the shelf' subtext.
Then there's the service which will be either very slow, because they've forgotten about you, or ridiculously fast, for they are trying to get rid of you, turn your table, and a table of two is more profitable. However it's also true that time does pass at a slower speed when you are alone.
In a high class restaurant, treating a solitary diner badly is a mistake, after all you could be a Michelin or AA inspector.
If you walk into a restaurant on your own, order one gin and tonic (can your restaurant make a halfway decent simple cocktail?), a glass of orange juice (is it freshly squeezed or from a carton?), something from every course of the menu and drink no wine, chances are, you are an inspector. Try it, you might get better service! (Believe me, I've had it on good authority that if you do these things, the kitchen will be all many restaurants have laminated photographs on their kitchen walls of all the top restaurant critics so that waiters can recognise them).
I do think it's even harder to dine alone if you are a woman and this article says that women who travel alone on business tend to eat in their room.
The site gives two alternatives to eating alone:
  • Eating at the bar. The disadvantage with this is, as a short woman, I loathe sitting on bar stools where your legs dangle child-like in the air. I like to plant my feet firmly on the ground when I eat.
  • Communal tables: some conventional restaurants, notably Wagamama and Ottolenghi offer this
Chef Nuno Mendez told me that one of the elements from his supperclub that he will definitely incorporate into his forthcoming restaurant 'Viajante' is a large communal table.
Holidays are also a minefield if you are single or worse, a single parent. I've always wanted to start up some kind of single parent holiday club but the one's that exist tend to consist of rainy caravans in Britain. Single parent's not only have to pay for their children ('double' parents often get free child places) but also have to pay adult price for their kid.
Once I booked a bed and breakfast via a guidebook. When I reserved by phone I explained that I was coming with my three year old and was that ok? No problem, I was told. On arrival we were put in the tiniest bedroom, you could barely open the door, with a single bed. My child was not allowed in any of the shared rooms such as the sitting room. I left and had a panicky few hours trying to find another place to stay on a holiday weekend in Devon.
I hope that people coming alone to my restaurant will feel welcome...warn me and I will do my best to make sure you have a great time... with the other people on your table.

Linked story...


  1. Singles night at the Underground Restaurant! Go on, do it.

    I went to Wagamama on my own once. I chose it because of the communal tables and because I was in a hurry. Only to suffer the usual lone diner experience of being ignored. You would think Wagamama is a good place to dine alone, but unfortunately not.

  2. A great idea having singles nights at the UR, I might think about having 'Singles Afternoon Teas' On occasions I've sat in Cafe's and Restaurants on my own and it ain't much fun.

  3. Totally on board for Singles Night at The Underground Restaurant!

    But..back to the topic at hand...I started eating by myself years ago when I was in Sydney for work for six weeks, followed by Munich for work for two weeks. I couldn't face the prospect of room service (and hotel food) every night. I remember in the early days, I always thought that everyone was staring at me. But then someone reminded me that people are inherently self-interested and are probably more concerned with their own hair and makeup and not me, the solo-diner.

    As you can probably see from my blog, I eat out by myself all the time. Particularly on weekends when I'm running errands and would rather have a nice hot meal out somewhere than a cold sandwich from Pret. I don't even think twice about it anymore. And with Twitter, well, I can definitely keep myself entertained while I'm eating.

    I did a post a while ago where I asked for solo dining spots...lots of great suggestions...

  4. Thanks for that link Krista...very useful.
    Maybe these restaurants think you are an inspector and in a way, as one of the top restaurant bloggers, you are!
    I eat out alone all the time but whether I'd do it in a nice restaurant on a Saturday night is a whole different matter.
    Go to a supperclub on my own...sure no problem, unless they do that 'table for two' business. One supperclub actually refused me entry because I wanted to go there alone.
    Even though I love my friends I find it boring to go as a 'table for two', I'm so curious about other people, I want to chat with everybody.
    Singles night....coming in the New Year. I'll have to figure out a way of making sure men and women are equally represented. Cos London, you know, it'll all be women otherwise.

  5. Interesting stuff...I love your attention to detail and how you have managed to pick out all the unspoken truths of dining on your pretending to be engrossed in a book! I do that!! I'm sure everyone does! xxx

  6. I've traveled independently for pleasure and on business, and have had no qualms regarding eating alone, after the initial self-consciousness that is. In fact, more often than not, people have invited me to join them, or just taken it upon themselves to join me; leading to some really enjoyable and interesting company, as well as the thought "bugger off - I just want to be on my own!"

    However, I have not once dined out alone in the UK. It would be brilliant to see more 'communal' tables for lone diners, irrespective of their relationship status, and less of the 'singles' nights with the 'cattle market' vibe.

  7. I came along on my own and really enjoyed it! In fact I've become quite good friends with the girls I dined with at your Japanese night, we had a riotous time

  8. Is it just as bad for men Adam?
    I suppose we all feel a bit vulnerable and like we've got a big red flag hanging over us saying 'sad loser!' when we are dining in a crowded restaurant on our own.
    Essex: true communal tables are nice for everybody not just singletons.
    Gastrogeek: I remember you asking if it'd be ok, and I'm glad it was. I also remember doing a drunken interview with your tablemates from channel 4...aargh!

  9. I have no problem dining alone. I used to travel a lot as part of my work so I suppose I got used to it then.

    There are some great places where you can share a table - which is a great way to meet the locals if you are abroad.

    If I'm alone at a table, I'll usually take out a pocket notebook and write a little or update my diary.

  10. i used to travel 3-4 nights a week for work and found smaller hotels with their own bar/restaurant were good fun as the owners often hosted and introduced you to others and they did not attract lecherous sales people intent on getting drunk and hitting on me at bar...aslo mastered the book reading!

    I will be coming to Underground soon and curiously had decided I wanted to come myself as I could focus on food and enjoy instead of looking after chosen fellow diner.

    singles night sounds like fun too

  11. Just coming back to this know I went to that Berlin Supperclub all by my lonesome and had a fantastically amazing time. We all went out after dinner and I had to drag myself away at 2:30 a.m. (German class the next morning!)

    I agree with Dan/Essex Eating...more often than not, when I am dining alone, random strangers will start talking to me. (Particularly as I'm taking photos of my food.) There have been some good conversations that wouldn't have happened had I been dining à deux.


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