This question from restaurant hosts, once answered with a furtive nod, increasingly elicits a breezy, “Yes!”
OpenTable, the popular site for online reservations, recently announced that over the past two years, reservations for parties of one have grown by 62 percent in the U.S., making it the fastest-growing table party size. The trend mirrors a wider cultural shift, with the number of single-person households rising as never before.
Caroline Potter, a consultant for OpenTable, also credits discerning diners who want to eat at top restaurants regardless of whether they have companions.
“Solo dining is about treating yourself to a delicious experience and savoring every bite,” Potter said.
Eric Dayton, who co-owns the Bachelor Farmer, said he thinks that people who dine alone “show a wonderful confidence. I always sort of tip my hat to solo diners. I think you’re kind of the coolest person in the dining room.”
Of course, given the ever-present side order of smartphones, many share their meals with Facebook friends, Instagram followers or Snapchat besties. But the stigma long associated with loners is waning.
When servers ask Heather Radcliff if she’s waiting for someone, the North St. Paul mother of youngsters assures them that she is “happy by myself, getting my meal served at a place that does not offer a prize with your food.”
Sarah Tracy of St. Paul said she loves “observing the situations around me. It’s often more entertaining than if someone were with me.”
Some singles rebel against any hint of second-class treatment. David Gustafson of Minneapolis watches for hosts who “will try to stick a lone diner with the table by the kitchen or the bathroom. I won’t take that anymore, and if other and better tables are obviously available, I’ll request one of those.”
Yet, he added, most places seem to welcome solitary diners. “I’ve gotten more dirty looks for not ordering liquor than I ever have for being a solo diner.”
As the number of solo diners grows, so does the number of solo travelers. They now account for nearly one in four of all leisure travelers, according to the U.S. Travel Association. While some people have little choice but to dine alone, more diners simply are at ease with taking themselves out for dinner.
“We’ve always had a healthy number of solo diners, usually travelers,” said Lenny Russo, executive chef of Heartland Restaurant in St. Paul, noting that they’re more often weeknight customers. Familiarity helps. “We do have a couple people who are regulars, who will come in if their spouse is out of town, or it’s a last-minute deal on their way home.”
The Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis was among more than 30 U.S. restaurants that OpenTable noted as particularly solo-friendly. Its list was based on bookings for one, diners’ reviews and its restaurant experts.
“I think we’ve been popular with solo diners from the beginning,” Dayton said, surmising that the old brick-and-timber warehouse creates places for more intimate tables “so you’re not sitting out in the middle of the room.”
The restaurant also offers a wine program in which servers will open any bottle if a table commits to drinking half. The remaining servings then are listed on a chalkboard, enabling solo diners to choose from wines that otherwise wouldn’t be sold by the glass.
While single diners long have sat at restaurant bars, the rise of open kitchens with perimeter seating offers another option.
Mo Kotb, who multitasks as bartender, waiter and manager at Tilia in Minneapolis, said that while he hasn’t noticed an uptick in solo diners, there almost always are some in the small Linden Hills restaurant, which has chef-side seating.
“Yesterday, we had a lady solo diner — she was traveling — and a man from the neighborhood,” he said. “If you want to focus on the food, it’s a good thing.”
Strategies from books to dolls
For many, solitary dining still feels weird. Worse, plus-none status can invite unwanted sociability.
Those who are determined not to date their phones, but still fend off company, often tote books. Some say they write in their journals, make lists or listen to podcasts on their headphones. Many choose places with TV screens. (Hey, with no need to talk, maybe this is the time to try one of those restaurants with the deafening acoustics.)
The issue is global — with some novel solutions.
Eenmaal, which opened last year in Amsterdam, calls itself the world’s first restaurant that offers only tables for one. The everyone-is-alone concept is so successful that Eenmaal — Dutch for “once” — plans to expand. There also are websites such as the women-only InviteForABite.com, where a woman posts an invitation noting when and where she plans on dining, and asks if any other woman wants to join her.
Then there’s Japan’s Moomin Café, which offers solo patrons large, stuffed Moomin dolls as companions. What’s a Moomin? It’s a hippopotamus-like creature from a Finnish animated series that is wildly popular in Japan.
People really do this.
Form of flattery
Dayton said he regards solo diners as flattering to a restaurant.
“Here’s someone who wants to come and is not letting the fact that, for whatever reason they’re alone, not letting that stand in their way,” he said. “That’s a really great compliment to the restaurant, that their whole experience is about the food, and not the person they’re with.”
Then again, sometimes it really is all about the person they’re with.
Marla DeBace Lutchen of Cottage Grove said it best: While she might bring along a book, as a working mom and parent of a 7-year-old, “I don’t mind a nice quiet meal with great company — me!”