Table for one

By James Walker

The social stigma associated with dining alone still exists. James Walker gets a helping of advice from those who have mastered the art

The good and bad of being a solo diner. Photo / Thinkstock
The good and bad of being a solo diner. Photo / Thinkstock

On a recent work trip to Europe, I walked into a restaurant, seeking a table for one.

The waiter responded, "Oh." After a moment's pause, she said in a motherly voice: "We'll see if we can't find you something special, shall we?" I thought she was going to take me by the hand.

She led me to that special table, right next to the restroom, with one leg 3cm shorter than the others. I was certain this table would not be offered to couples or "legitimate diners". But I understood why. The maitre d' didn't want a loner in a prime window seat.

To passersby, there's nothing enticing about misery.

Before leaving me to my restroom views, the waitress dramatically whipped the extra napkin off the table and clattered the surplus cutlery as if percussion instruments. It would have been easier if she had just turned to fellow diners and, in a stage whisper, said, "He's all alone ... maybe forever."

Following the ritual humiliation, I was left in my remote corner to exchange uncomfortable smiles with diners on the way to and from the bathroom. All there was left to do, to distract myself from the overpowering smell of bleach, was eavesdrop on other diners.

Listening in on the conversations of others almost makes dining alone worthwhile.

Usually, when eating out, it's expected that you converse with the people you came with, whether you find them good company or not. When dining alone, I enjoy being free to choose the most interesting companions in earshot.

I had been seated next to a middle-aged man and woman who were obviously on a date. I could tell they hadn't been together for long, as they looked like they were enjoying one another's company.

The man was retelling stories of the many sporting achievements of his youth.

Admittedly I, too, was transfixed. Could his high-school sporting success in 1981 really seal the deal?

He culminated the biopic with his proudest accomplishment of all; at 17 he placed fourth in a tae kwon do competition in Finland. Apparently, as he explained, when it came to the martial arts, Finland is the Korea of Europe.

By this point, I had become over-involved in their dinner. I was leaning so far across my table, I was almost at theirs. So when he revealed his martial arts success and she sighed in such a way that meant he had the green light, the couple definitely heard me snigger.

They turned and looked at me. Then they looked at the empty seat opposite me, and then at the vacant second place-setting. Finally, they looked up at the sign above my head that said "Restrooms".

Nothing more needed to be said. After all, he was about to get lucky. And given his martial arts prowess, so was she. I was the one dining with stigma.

Mark Keddell, one of the founders of Auckland hospitality group Pack & Company, says 10 years ago, when he used to "walk the boards" at restaurants, he would mark the dockets of solo diners with an "LG". The letters stood for "Lonely Guy" or "Lonely Girl".

In those days, Dylan Marychurch, now maitre d' at Everybody's on Fort St in Auckland, says he would immediately think a diner had been stood up if he saw them eating alone.

But the restaurant industry has grown up; solo diner slights and stereotypes have faded over the last decade. Stephen Morris, manager of Avida in central Wellington, says restaurants are accustomed to people dining alone. Further, he says, a single diner is not seen as half a table for two, rather a customer gained. Although he admits he still refers to lone diners as Hans, as in "Han Solo", he says he means it affectionately.

Keddell, whose company owns 20 bars and restaurants including Lone Star and La Zeppa, says, "We love everyone. You can do a great job for 10 customers, and then an average job for one, and that person will be the one who talks."

The Wellington restaurant review blog Solo Date City suggests restaurateurs are right to be mindful of solitary diners. The anonymous 27-year-old behind the blog found herself single after years in a relationship and decided to detail her experiences eating out in restaurants alone.

She chose to hide her identity so she that she is treated just like any other solitary diner.

"It's sort of a social experiment; to see how other people treat you and what the experience is like," says the blogger.

She says that when she is out alone, restaurant staff usually make her feel welcome, whether with a newspaper or conversation, but it is fellow patrons who are more likely to judge.

She is still not used to the sideways glances. "When you're dining alone, other diners look at you and you can tell they're thinking, 'What is this person doing? Do they not have friends? Do they not have a partner?"'

On one occasion, in a cheap-but-not-so-cheerful Japanese restaurant in Wellington, the blogger had diners next to her pick up their table and move it away from hers, in case she was readying herself to eavesdrop. "That's the kind of thing that makes you shrink in your shoes," she says.

She gets two divergent reactions on her blog: "Some say, 'Dining alone is totally normal, I've been doing it for years'. Others say, 'I wouldn't do it in my wildest dreams - especially somewhere nice'."

In June, Marina Van Goor, a Dutch designer, decided to confront the social stigma of dining alone. She opened a pop-up restaurant, Eenmaal, in Amsterdam. The restaurant, the name of which means both "one time" and "one meal", only had tables for one.

"Nobody wants to be seen as lonely, so I thought we could turn dining alone around.

Maybe we could move loneliness into a public space, and make it more hip," van Goor said. The restaurant was booked-out.

One diner told van Goor that the restaurant "made an uncomfortable idea comfortable".

Others found the experience relaxing. Van Goor re-opened the temporary restaurant again last month and in November will take it to Berlin. She hopes to find many a German willing to ask the question, "Do you have a table for one?"

For Ruth Macleod, a director at New Zealand Trade and Enterprise in Auckland who travels regularly for work, dining alone has taken some getting used to. "I'm a little embarrassed about dining alone ... but I put on my big girl pants and experience something new."

After all, a meal out alone can be much less depressing than a room-service club sandwich and an Adam Sandler pay-per-view movie. Business travellers are usually those who dine by themselves most frequently.

But it is true that certain restaurants are more suitable for the solo diner than others.

Macleod avoids anywhere that looks "really pumping". Wherever she chooses, Macleod brings her iPad, which she uses to "look up Tripadvisor to find the restaurant I should have eaten at, rather than the one I'm at".

Auckland food writer Lauraine Jacobs recommends that if you are dining alone out-of-town, you should choose somewhere known for its service where the waitstaff "won't blink an eye".

She suggests solo diners try restaurants with dining at the bar, as you can always pin down the bartender for a conversation. She also recommends avoiding restaurants that serve dishes to share, like tapas.

When dining on her own, Jacobs says she requests a table where she can see what's going on in the restaurant, so other diners provide the entertainment.

"The worst place is near the flapping door of the kitchen, or the toilets. Those places are horrible at all times, but when you're on your own - it's really awful. Some restaurants will do that to you, but you have a right to ask to move."

Final advice for the solo diner?

Morris from Avida says, "Don't be ashamed. No one is judging you."

Except, of course, a few of your fellow diners. But if it helps you to brave a restaurant alone; don't think of yourself as a Lonely Guy or a Lonely Girl, think of yourself as Han.

No one would move their table away from Han Solo and live to tell the story.

- NZ Herald

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