The Rise Of The Solo Diner

"It was weird to look over and see some single person eating next to you ten years ago," says Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of Dirt Candy in New York City. "Now it's pretty normal."

With that in mind, Cohen unveiled the expanded reincarnation of her popular vegetarian restaurant in early 2015, and the new space includes a large, L-shaped bar. (The original Dirt Candy didn't have a bar at all.) In honor (or in spite) of Valentine's Day this year, Cohen not only reserved all bar seats for solo diners, but she also created a $68 six-course tasting menu just for them. The special ran for one week in mid-February.

"We get a lot of single diners — throughout the year, not just on Valentine's Day — and it sucks because they wish they could try multiple menu items, but they can't" because it would be either too much food or an unjustifiable expense, she says. "This seemed like a nice thing we could do. You can actually sit down, by yourself, have a whole adult meal, and not feel rushed."

Cohen is one of a group of chefs and restaurateurs getting out in front of what may become a trend: An October 2015 OpenTable study revealed that reservations for one have grown nationally by 62 percent over the past two years.

"If someone reserves on OpenTable for one person, we'll put them at the counter, and 95 percent of the time they're cool with that," says Ned Elliott, chef and owner of Foreign & Domestic in Austin, Texas. It's a win-win situation that way, he explains: The diner, who can order anything on the restaurant's menu from the bar, doesn't feel awkward staring at an empty chair, and the restaurant doesn't lose out on the potential for two checks.

Elliott himself loves to dine by...himself. "I don't dine at restaurants with three Michelin stars that much, so if I'm going to eat like that, I want to do so by myself," he says. "I don't have to carry on a conversation, so I have time to focus. Especially if I'm with someone who's not into food, it becomes a pain to tell them, 'This is this, and that is that.'"

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Even if you do feel strange dining alone, are you ever really "alone"? "When I started in the business — I opened my first restaurant in 1993 — if somebody came in as a one-top, I felt compelled to either start a conversation or offer reading material," says Kevin Boehm, of Chicago's Boka Restaurant Group. "Today, you're not really eating by yourself anymore, because we have smartphones. Anywhere you go, you have this companion," he continues, referring not only to the phone itself but also to Facebook and Twitter. "You're dining with a million people."

For those who, like Elliott, don't need the constant companionship (digital or otherwise), a meal taken alone can be an unencumbered gustatory pleasure. "I remember in college reading this great M.F.K. Fisher essay," says writer Matt Gross, the former Frugal Traveler columnist for The New York Times. "She was traveling in France and she stopped in to a little place to get a quick lunch by herself. The property owner saw how much she enjoyed the first course and kept bringing her more and more delicious dishes. She had this utterly incredible solo dining experience, and this encounter with a restaurant and restaurateur who simply wanted to feed her well. Ever since I read that, I've always hoped to go somewhere by myself and have a pure dining experience like that."

This is, in part, why Gross likes to travel solo. "When you're 10,000 miles from home on your own, you can focus more on what you want." Gross isn't, well, alone in that: Amongst affluent and first-time travelers, solo travel has more than doubled in the past two years.

"I can't think of any restaurant I've worked with lately where the bar did not offer, if not the full menu, really good food," says Adam Riess, founder of hospitality consultancy Procibo. "They all keep napkins and forks and knives behind the bar, and people are generally encouraged to eat there." As mentioned, both Dirt Candy and Foreign & Domestic have counter seats to accommodate solo diners (and solo travelers who ultimately become solo diners). Untitled at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City was built with a roomy, 11-seat bar as well as two communal high-tops with six seats each.

All of Untitled's other tables are two-tops, though, and according to general manager Gia San Angelo, about 10 percent of those are normally occupied by solo diners. Sticking them at the bar, in other words, can't be the only way to deal with solo diners hospitably.

Untitled is part of Union Square Hospitality Group, whose owner Danny Meyer coined the phrase "reading the diner." Paying close attention to the customer, whether solo or in a group, has always been a part of Meyer's restaurants' DNA. Still, San Angelo says it's being underscored in the past two years. "What we really talk about with our team in meetings now is that people dining alone are taking time to do something nice for themselves," she explains. "They could just get fast food or delivery to their apartments, but if they're going out to a nice restaurant instead, they must be into food or wine. So we encourage our servers to talk to them, to tell them what the restaurant is all about, and maybe to encourage them to order some of our more adventurous menu items."

So counter seating and front-of-house training seem to be the two most significant ways in which restaurants are accommodating this rise in solo diners. Anything else, at least in terms of design, would be a bad business move. "Real estate is too expensive not to think really carefully about designing a restaurant to accommodate solo diners," says Riess.

"I walked into a restaurant yesterday afternoon. It wasn't busy, and there were three of us, so I was hoping [the staff] would scoot two deuces together," says Riess, to give an example. "Instead, they stuck a third chair on the open side of a two-top against a wall. They were happy to get an extra person dining at a table for two, of course."

Increasingly popular communal seating is another go at solving this issue. "Communal tables are great because they give the restaurant options," says Riess. "You can have a table that seats a large party of six, but also a party of three and three, or four and two solo diners, et cetera. But they have to be big and located in a casual, convivial kind of restaurant to really work." The new "Just Cook for Me Chef!" program at Miraval Resort & Spa in Tucson is a kind of mini communal-dining experience: The idea is that a solo diner can book a seat at a small table with other solo diners, and then they can all enjoy more menu items than they would have otherwise.

Space doesn't seem to be a problem at Enmaal in Amsterdam, "the first one-person restaurant in the world." Its tables are built exclusively for one in hopes of removing the stigma around solo dining that apparently still exists in the Netherlands. It's not the only place making overtures for solo diners. At the Founding Farmers restaurants in Washington, parties of one are sometimes offered free cocktails and appetizers. Dr. Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo, the Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, points out that grocery stores like Whole Foods have gotten into the act too and are starting to offer more single-serving prepared meals and hot food bars geared toward singles.

None of this compares to the marketing dollars other industries are throwing at the growing number of people living their lives to the fullest — alone. If the latest forecasts from Euromonitor are accurate, more than 330 million people in the developed world will be living alone by 2020. That's a 20 percent increase in less than a decade. The real estate market has been particularly attentive to singletons; Coldwell Banker, for one, is soliciting them, as is Lowe's, which several years ago aired a TV ad featuring a single woman renovating her bathroom. Close to that time, DeBeers advertised the "right-hand ring" for unmarried women who want to treat themselves to fine jewelry.

The restaurant industry might soon need to find a better way to catch up. Or, at the very least, remove any remaining obstacles to solo dining.

"I tried to change a reservation for four people at Benu in San Francisco to one person [recently]," Shari Bayer, host of the Heritage Radio podcast All in the Industry, writes in an email. "They said they couldn't do it as they don't accept parties of one on Friday or Saturday nights. They'd rather fill more seats." Can policies like this (Alinea and some other ticketed, tasting menu-style restaurants employ them) continue? Only time will tell.

"Some people still tell me how brave I am for dining alone," Bayer says. "That's ridiculous. I'm not brave."

"This is just the circumstance. I'm single, I want to eat, so I'm going out. I want to experience things."