Fancy a Night Out…. With Yourself? The rise of lone diners

“‘What is the best number for a dinner party?’
‘Two. Myself and a damned good head waiter'”

Nubar Gulbenkian, industrialist, philanthropist and gourmet who gave his position on a market research form as ‘enviable’.

The cartoon above is another (see broccolini) inspired by the pre-war New Yorker magazine. The original was drawn by Warren Miller, and had the caption “Very classy choice for a guy who’s eating solo”. But as my diner above is saying, times are changing, these days it may be the customer eating alone who orders the pick of the menu.

Every year I holiday alone, and go out alone for dinner. I used to feel a little self-conscious but these days greater age has bestowed a non-caring confidence. And there may also be another reason for feeling less of a sore thumb – many others are also now doing the same (see trends).

The demographics – increasing numbers of us are living alone

A US reservations site, Open Table has reported a 62% increase in bookings for a table for one over the 24 months of 2014 and 2015. Demographic information showing significant increases in the number of people living alone supports this. In Stockholm 60% of residents live on their own, in New York and Paris the figure is over half, and in London it’s about a third. The increase is due in part to higher divorce rates, and people getting married later in life. A recent report (April 2016 – The Big Lunch) reports that the average British adult eats nearly half his or her meals alone, and 34% report sometimes going a whole week without eating a meal with another person.

Is it worse for women….in Britain?

In fact, I have even come to positively enjoy lone dining. One summer I spent a couple of weeks learning Italian in Montepulciano. I stayed in a wine-bar-with-rooms (see Montepulciano restaurant guide) and every evening I would sit at the bar, earning free glasses of wine by correcting the English translation of the menu. I’d have a light supper, chatting with the barman, and enjoying watching the wine bar’s local clients. Every meal was relaxed and comfortable.

So I was very interested to read a recent article, On The Awkwardness of a Woman Dining Alone, contributed by Celia Walden in The Telegraph. Am I more comfortable eating alone abroad than in the UK? I think maybe I am. Certainly Walden comments that she has also enjoyed eating alone in Barcelona, New York, LA and Rome, but in Britain it’s an endurance test or a statement. She describes the awkwardness of the arrival of a lone female diner:

“‘Would you like to wait until your whole party is here?’ asks the waitress. I want to formulate an answer that’s both casual and empowered; to tell this ab-tastic teen in her navel-knotted Ramones tee that, ‘This is the whole party. Today it’s a party for one.’ Instead a kind of apology drivels out. ‘Actually I’ll be dining alone,’ I say, the vowel sound echoing tragically in my head.”

The industry is discovering that the lone diner is a good customer

Restaurateurs used to find accommodating a single client uneconomic but increasingly they are discovering that, in fact, this group tends to be more affluent and has more money to spend on good wine as well as quality food. People on their own also tend to move off more quickly. And a positive experience as a lone diner may result in repeat accompanied business.

Solo diners also tend to be more appreciative. They are there because they choose to be, not because there is a three line whip out on looking after business visitors, or attending a landmark family celebration.

More recently there’s been a minor backlash against solo diners that take up ‘whole tables’. This is not very forward-thinking, the answer is the bar or counter as we suggest below.

What the restaurateurs are doing to make the lone dining experience more comfortable

  • The conscious provisions of bars is one of the ways many restaurants now are making lone diners feel more welcome.
  • Alternatively the director, Wes Anderson has designed the new Bar Luce in Milan to include booths built for one. He says of his creation:

“While I do think it would make a pretty good movie set, I think it would be an even better place to write a movie.”

  • Other restaurants are training waiting staff to be more attentive to single diners. That doesn’t necessarily mean being ‘talked to’ – some diners prefer to be left in silence.
  • And it’s not just waiting staff, in some restaurants solo diners are able to watch and interact with the chefs – restaurant as entertainment. See Dinner At The Kitchen Table.
  • The American restaurateur, Stephen Beckta, gives guests who have been stood up a free meal, a lovely touch. Other restaurants award free glasses of champagne to lone clients.
  • And finally there’s EENMAAL, described by its Dutch designer, Marina Van Goor, as “the first one-person restaurant in the world and an attractive place for temporary disconnection.”
    This space has no wi-fi to enable diners to benefit from one of the main advantages of eating alone. Most business meals are really a form of negotiation – you need to concentrate to ensure you don’t lose ground. Even at just a social meal you have to make an effort to be polite. A lone diner has the luxury of being able to focus on the taste of the food and wine. Eenmaal is a pop-up restaurant, appearing first in Amsterdam, but moving last month in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Nothing new about lone diners….

Lone diners have one thing in common. They remain single-minded, focused and serious about the food they are eating.

And they’ve been doing it for a long time. The Roman general Lucius Licinius Lucullus enjoyed inviting friends over for lavish dinners. However, on one occasion he dined alone, and the servants omitted all the usual items of grandeur. The general was furious. “Do you not realise that tonight Lucullus dines with Lucullus?” he raged.

More on dining alone

  • Do you happen to be in Melbourne? Follow this link for a helpful article by Hilary McNevin, writing in The Guardian.
  • For a book of recipes for those living alone, try:

Solo, The Joy of Cooking For One, by Signe Johansen.

The Good Food Guide Meals for One, triple tested, published by the BBC

  • A Brandwatch report published in July 2023 reveals that:

“From June 1, 2022 to May 31, 2023, the number of people talking online about eating alone and eating solo increased by 7% compared to the previous 12 months, and the number of online mentions increased by 9%. Looking at different regions, there are some differences: While the number of German- and French-speaking people talking about eating alone has increased, fewer people in APAC countries are talking about the topic.”

Dinner for one

I am not quite sure what this says about the German sense of humour but ALL my German friends find the clip below hysterical and I know it is shown on German television EVERY new year, and watched by pretty much the entire nation.

Music to read to

Celine Dion sings All By Myself

It was my friend Domenico Pedicillo who first put me onto Dinner For One, so this post is dedicated to him.
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