Fern Glazer is a regular contributor to Nation's Restaurant News.
True confession: Sometimes I like to eat alone.
And, apparently, I’m not, um, alone.
In a culture that places a high value on connecting over cuisine, eating alone has long been seen as a negative — a practice relegated to the lonely or the outcast. Despite that, more and more people are dining solo. According to The Hartman Group’s recent report “Modern Eating: Cultural Roots, Daily Behaviors,” about half of all eating occasions are now alone.
Consumers are eating alone for many reasons, and most have nothing to do with not having someone else to sup with. Sure, more people are living alone today and therefore are more likely to eat alone. But that’s not it. The Hartman Group report reveals that eating alone isn’t about being lonely; it’s a lifestyle choice. For some consumers it’s all about dining without negotiating — eating exactly where they want, what they want and when they want it. For some it's the opportunity to more thoughtfully experience food without the distraction of conversation. For others it’s about catching up on activities — a good book, social media or work. For me it’s a bit of all of the above. But mostly it’s a chance to step away from my roles as writer, wife and mother, and take in the scene around me, savor my food and hear myself think.
While more consumers may be OK eating alone, it’s not always a welcome practice at a restaurant. Sure, you can eat alone at a fast-food place or coffee shop without much notice. Not so much at a full-service restaurant. There aren’t usually tables for one, so solo diners often get sent to the bar or, worse, a two-top at the back of the dining room. Hostesses will likely inquire if you’re waiting for the rest of your party. Servers, worried you won’t order much and will leave a tiny tip, will try to win you over with small talk. Other diners will briefly stare, then start sizing up your sad situation with their companions.
But more alone eating could be a huge opportunity for restaurants if they can find a way to make singles feel at ease. In fact, a few international eateries have already been capitalizing on the trend. Eenmaal, a temporary restaurant in Amsterdam, is made up entirely of tables for one. Meanwhile, in Japan at the Moomin Café chain, a concept inspired by Tove Jansson’s beloved children’s books, parties of all sizes are offered the option to sit with stuffed Moomins.
While these may be extreme approaches, with nearly half of all meals now eaten alone, it’s in restaurants’ best interest to embrace solo diners and make them feel just as welcome as four-tops.