There’s a brilliant scene in the film Shirley Valentine that perfectly sums up an enduring cultural taboo: solo female diners. Our holidaying heroine walks into a crowded restaurant and as she is led to a table for one, the room falls silent; discomfited diners look on aghast. “Funny, isn’t it,” she muses, “that if you’re a woman on your own you don’t half seem to upset people?”
This scene may have been hammed up for comic effect, but certain elements ring true: first, the assumption that a woman can’t possibly be dining alone out of choice – and then, worse, the realisation that perhaps they are.
While this ritual has long been perfectly possible, it hasn’t always been an enjoyable or straightforward experience. My mother recently recounted a story from her business travel days. Shown to a table slap-bang in the middle of a vast and near-empty hotel dining room, she told the waiter it would not do, and that she’d be waiting in the bar until he’d thought about where a woman dining alone might be more comfortably seated. She was meekly offered a discreet corner table and treated like a queen.
Changing industry attitudes
The fine-dining obsession of the 1990s and early 2000s, with its big-ticket, splendidly starchy dining rooms (London’s Criterion or Quaglino’s, or any restaurant with chef Alain Ducasse at the helm) was best suited to couples and groups. A lone diner may have been tolerated and looked after, but a table conspicuously set for one, in a vast salon, was never an attractive prospect.
Now, thankfully, restaurant trends in the UK have given way to a more relaxed approach – good news for the solo diner. “The smaller, more intimate, fastturnaround restaurants serving tapas, dim sum, ramen and small plates – often at the bar or counter – lend themselves well to the lone diner,” says Thomas Blythe, general manager of chef Angela Hartnett’s Shoreditch restaurant Merchants Tavern. And, he suggests, restaurants are beginning to realise the value of the happy (and therefore loyal) solo diner. “Increasingly, they’re introducing prix fixe menus and great wines by the glass or carafe. It seems they understand that the lone diner is to be embraced as good, regular trade.”
And it doesn’t end there. This summer saw strategic designer Marina Van Goor launch Eenmaal, a pop-up restaurant in Amsterdam filled exclusively with tables for one where diners could enjoy four courses in companionable solitude. Heathrow Airport has also recognised an increase in lone female travellers and is reflecting this shift in the design of its new food areas: wide, comfortable bar spaces and much gentler lighting.
A spoon of one’s own
Even in Korea, where dining alone is generally frowned upon, Seoul’s Ichimen ramen restaurant has created a space full of single booths where diners can slurp in peace. In a country where communal dining is considered a cornerstone of society, the trend is gathering pace. Traditional grill restaurants and Japanese shabu-shabu joints are also adapting their offerings: hot stones and pots for one (without a side of stigma).
I view leisurely solo dining as one of life’s great pleasures, so for me this transformation of the dining scene is encouraging. There’s something admirable about choosing to go it alone that we should revel in before it becomes entirely commonplace. So I urge you to go forth and utter those four magic words: “Table for one, please.” You won’t look back. Because not only do you get to absorb the ambiance without having to chat or share your chips, but I’ll bet my demi-carafe of wine that the people at the next table are envious as hell of your chutzpah. And all those chips.
Leaving a tip – well, six
1. Choose your restaurant well (informal, quality, quirky)
2. Book ahead (be swept straight to your table like royalty), or better still, go to one of those no-reservations places and enjoy being the most quickly seated in the queue
3. Treat yourself (go on, have the cocktail)
4. Be choosy (a table with a view is great; the counter or bar shouldn’t be your only option)
5. Chat to the staff (build rapport and you won’t feel lonely)
6. Take a book, if you like – just resist the temptation to play Candy Crush on your phone.
Kate Foster is a writer and foodie, currently working on a book about sex and modern manners.