Vickie Nauman is one of the most accomplished, self-assured people I know. She has a great job, travels around the world on her own and doesn't take guff from anyone. Yet when I asked her for tips on eating out alone on the road, she said: “I personally don't care to sit at a ‘table for one.’ No matter how hard I try, I feel like a loser.”
I know what she means. Last weekend, I was hanging around the shiny, bright Terminal D at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
I had time to spare, a New Yorker to read and a hankering for enchiladas and a margarita. I chose a table-service restaurant, placed my order, and tucked into my magazine.
Half-way through my meal, I looked up and noticed I was the only person dining alone. Maybe it was the margarita or that raucous group of guys ordering up a third round of beers, but all of sudden I got that “loser” feeling. So I pushed aside that last enchilada and left.
My mistake? “No-guff Nauman” says I should have tried sitting at the bar. “I always look for a restaurant/cafe with a bar where you can order from the dinner menu. I grab a barstool, chat with the bartender or someone sitting next to me, and it feels much more casual and enjoyable.”
Wayne Wilson agrees. He travels a lot for his job as an expert witness in securities litigation and says most “better” restaurants offer meal service at the bar. “I cannot recall an instance when I did not end up in a pleasant, sometimes spirited, conversation with those sitting on either side of me. In most cases they are also solo diners.” When a bar doesn't offer meal service, Wilson says he's happy to sit in the restaurant but finds it “best not to take a book or anything too lengthy to read in a short time.” Instead, he suggests picking up some brochures of local sites from a lobby display or the concierge and taking them to the table. “This will frequently lead to a conversation with your server or folks sitting nearby. It works well as a conversation starter with locals since most people are proud of where they live and love to tell visitors about their home town.”
Of course, not everyone dining alone is in the mood to chat. Marc Papineau, general manager of Seattle's BOKA KITCHEN+BARsays that shouldn't mean a solo diner gets ignored by the restaurant staff. “We put ourselves at the disposal of our single diners as much as possible. We offer them reading materials, pay extra attention and make sure our vocabulary is ‘right.’ For example, our hosts will never say, ‘Just you?’ That would only make someone feel ostracized!"
At McCormick’s Fish House & Bar, also in Seattle, general manager Greg Buck's tip for travelers dining alone is to make use of their hotel concierge service. “A good concierge will of course know where the best meals are, but also which restaurants are better at making solo diners feel welcome.”
Back at DFW airport, business etiquette consultant Susan Huston stopped by to scold me for feeling uncomfortable when eating out alone. She offered her tips on solo dining over dinner at the Grand Met, the upscale restaurant in the Grand Hyatt DFW hotel. “First of all, don't think everyone is looking at you when you're dining alone,” she says. “If you slipped and that clam went flying off this table to that other table, maybe. But no one really cares that you're over here eating alone. They have their own meal to attend to.”
Huston says its fine for solo diners to bring a book, magazine or notepad with them to a restaurant, but that there's nothing wrong with simply enjoying your meal, chatting with your waiter, (“your new best friend”) and doing a bit of people watching. She also approved of the Grand Met's high- and low-tech ways of making solo travelers feel welcome.
Restaurant manager Luca Carrara says solo diners can, of course, sit at a “regular” table, at the large “community” table in the lounge or at one of the high stools along the restaurant's “media bar,” which has nine nicely-spaced stations, each with its own 15-inch flat-screen TV. Carrara says solo diners also enjoy spending time studying the offerings on the Virtual Menu, which is a pedestal-mounted tablet PC filled with images and detailed descriptions of everything on the menu. The restaurant also offers an iTaste program designed especially for solo travelers: iPods loaded with video podcasts guide earbud-wearing diners through short cheese, wine or chocolate tastings.
At Huston's urging, I grabbed a book and showed up alone to give my new solo dining skills a try with one of the video-guided cheese tastings. She was right — I didn't have to worry about the people seated around me thinking I was a loser for eating alone. My fellow diners were much more concerned that I was talking back to the guy inside the iPod.