The rise of solo diners

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I lead a very busy life, and because of this, I often find myself eating out alone. That’s not to say I don’t also spend time dining with friends and family, I just regularly enjoy breakfast, lunch or even dinner in my own company, and somewhat relish the time to myself. However a recent study by Oxford Economics suggests that eating alone is more strongly associated with unhappiness than any other factor, other than mental illness. Last year, researchers at the University of Oxford found that the more people eat with others, the happier they are. Robin Dunbar, a professor of psychology who worked on the Oxford University study, said: “At a psychological level, having friends just makes you happier. The kinds of things that you do around the table with other people are very good at triggering the endorphin system, which is part of the brain’s pain-management system.”

We are all too aware now that modern life can take its toll on our physical and mental health. However, dining solo doesn’t necessarily mean you are confining yourself to a life of sadness and solitude. Rather than discouraging solo diners, can restaurants work harder to create a positive environment in which to enjoy a meal with one’s own company?

The controversies of dining alone

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For a long time, society wasn’t quite ready to accept solo diners. Restaurant owners considered single diners not to be cost-effective, and many consumers felt that it was strange, or even sad, to eat out alone. However figures in the Waitrose Food and Drink Report 2017-2018 revealed that eight in 10 people now believe that eating out alone is more socially acceptable than it was five years ago. The research suggested that a third of Brits had dined out alone in the last month. To backup Waitrose’s report, Bookatable, an online reservation service, revealed that bookings for single tables have risen by 38% since 2014.

Interestingly, respondents to Waitrose’s report suggest that 75% of solo diners did so because society has become ‘more accepting’ of those who wish to dine without companions, and just under 50% believe that restaurants are more single-person friendly than before. These statistics show a heartening shift in attitudes towards solo dining, however it is also clear that the hospitality industry could be doing much more to encourage single diners.

While lesser social stigma is partly to thank for the boost in single diners, our increasing reliance on our smartphones is also a factor. Kate Exton, co-owner of Lorne Restaurant in London, told The Telegraph that a quarter of places in the restaurant are designated ‘counter seats’ for solo diners, and that roughly 95% of those who use them spend the duration of their meal on their phones.

How can restaurants adapt to suit solo diners?

Restaurants are often geared towards couples, families and groups, with solo diners regularly becoming an afterthought in the design or layout of establishments. However, simple considerations such an ensuring there are suitable tables by the window and plenty of counter seating can make a huge difference to solo diners’ experiences.

Many single diners may still feel slightly inhibited, so making them feel welcome will also go a long way to guaranteeing repeat business. One of Australia’s top restaurants, Momofuku Seiobo, has been praised for its attentiveness to solo diners. Chef Paul Carmichael told Hospitality Magazine: “When I have a solo diner in, I tend to give a little bit more attention because I know what it’s like to be alone. Eating out is communal and family-oriented, so when someone comes in by themselves, I like to show a little extra love.”

The benefits of eating out alone

Julian Glover, labelled a ‘pro solo diner’ in a recent lifestyle feature in the Evening Standard, blasted recent figures suggesting that eating out alone makes you unhappy. “I want to eat alone – and eat happily,” said Glover. “But killjoy economists have dreamed up numbers to claim the nation’s mood is getting worse. They say it’s the fault of lives lived with too many microwaved mini-meals for one. Eat with others, they’ve calculated, and your cheerfulness levels rise by 0.22 points on their meaningless scale.

“This is absurd. Eating alone is great. Not every day. Not all the time. And not – I suggest – as a slob in boxers in bed, dribbling cheese from a pizza crust onto the duvet. There have got to be rules. And the first of them is that to do it properly, you have got to eat out.”

Glover goes on to point out the many benefits to dining out alone. The bill will be much cheaper, meaning you can upgrade your usual low-priced to mid-range dining experience to something much more luxurious. You don’t have to deal with small talk, or any awkward conversations. And most importantly, the entire experience is shaped around your needs and wants. If you’re still not convinced by solo dining, here are a few of my top tips:

·         Do your research – By choosing a restaurant in advance, you’re making the first step towards committing to the experience. You’ll feel more in control of the evening ahead of you.

·         Start with breakfast – Many of the ‘controversies’ around dining solo come from sitting at a table for one for a three-course dinner. If you are apprehensive about eating alone, try going out for a casual breakfast first to see how you feel.

·         Be wary of portion sizes – The beauty of dining with friends or a loved one is that if you can’t manage an entire portion, someone is likely to scoop up your leftovers with enthusiasm. However dining out alone means you’re committing to whatever you order. So keep in mind that some side dishes are created with two people in mind.

·         Bring a book – Even if you’re feeling confident before you arrive at the restaurant, seeing a room full of couples and families dining and laughing together can make anyone feel insecure. By bringing a book or a newspaper, you’ll always have a back-up plan.