Friday, November 27, 2009

Table for One: 10 Tips for Dining Solo

A scene from the movie, Forgetting Sarah Marshall:

Peter:  I'd like to grab some dinner please.
Matthew: Oh, great, is your wife gonna meet you?
Peter: No.
Matthew: Your girlfriend?
Peter: No, I don't have a girlfriend, so...
Matthew: So, you're just by yourself?
Peter: Yeah.
Matthew: Sucks. Okay, so just one. Here's your wine list, your menu, come on. You want, like, a magazine or something? It's gonna be boring if you're just sitting by yourself.
Peter: No, I'll be alright, thank you.
Matthew: I would just be *so* depressed.

This scene makes me laugh because I know exactly how Peter feels.  Dining out solo can sometimes make you feel like you're living on the fringes of society. From the time we were born, eating has been a social activity. As babies, we formed emotional attachments during feeding time. When we started school we learned that the lunch room was governed by a strict societal hierarchy of popularity. Your position within this hierarchy was clearly defined by where you sat in the cafeteria and who shared the table with you. Eating alone in the school cafeteria was considered the lowest position in the hierarchy, otherwise known as the loser, or in some cases a future Bill Gates.

If you're not accustomed to dining out alone, all those insecurities that you thought you had left behind when you graduated from high school, along with your knowledge of algebra, come bubbling to the surface as soon as you say "table for one". So, I've compiled a list of tips to help you get more enjoyment from dining out with no one but your fabulous self. 

  1. SIT IN THE BAR- Most restaurants offer dining service in the bar, so you don’t feel bad about taking up valuable table space. If you’re interested in meeting people, the bar is a good place to strike up a conversation. If you’d rather have a quiet dinner with no interruptions, many restaurants have tables or booths in the bar area, so you don’t have to worry about making small talk with Mr. Close-Talker-Whiskey-Breath man, who's been planted at that same barstool  for the last four hours.
  2. REQUEST A TABLE LOCATION- If the bar isn't an option, you can request a table or booth in the back of the main dining area, so you don't feel exposed sitting at a table in the middle of a crowded room.
  3. GO EARLY- If you plan to eat out early, before the dinner rush, you're apt to feel more comfortable, and your server will like you more. 
  4. IN WARM WEATHER, SIT ON THE PATIO- The patio space is more relaxed plus there is usually more going on outside, so you won’t get bored.  
  5. BRING SOMETHING TO READ- The worst part about eating alone is during those 15 minutes before your order arrives. You spend the time folding and unfolding your napkin and memorizing the contents of the artificial sweetener pack. A book, magazine or journal serves a dual purpose. It keeps you occupied while sending a clear message to the likes of the above bar guy that you're not interested in making friends. If you don't have anything to read, you could play with your iPhone or Nintendo DS , but if you’re trying to look less lame, that might not help.
  6. STAY AT A FANCY PANTS HOTEL AND DINE IN THE LOUNGE- Hotels cater to business travelers who often dine alone. If you happen to be staying at the Hyatt’s Grand Met at the Dallas DFW airport, you have a few options for enjoying a solo dining experience.  You can sit at a regular table, or at the large community table in the lounge, or at one of the stools along the restaurant's media bar, which has nine nicely-spaced stations, each with its own 15-inch flat-screen TV. The restaurant also offers an iTaste program designed especially for solo travelers: iPods loaded with video podcasts guide earbud-wearing diners through 20-25 minute cheese, wine or chocolate tastings. 
  7. TRY A CHEF'S TABLE OR COMMUNAL SEATING-  Communal dining is a concept that has taken off in some large cities.  Restaurateur, Jeffrey Chodorow and designer Philippe Starck can be credited with igniting the trend with their popular NYC eatery, Asia de Cuba. The main attraction isn't just the food, the drinks or even the service. It is the 25-foot-long table placed in the middle of the dining room, where 36 strangers can share a meal together and possibly leave as friends. In Austin, the Driskill Hotel offers Chef's Table events that could be geared toward a group of single diners. Hopefully, the communal dining trend will continue to grow in Austin. 
  8. REMIND YOURSELF OF ALL THE THINGS YOU EASILY DO ALONE- shopping, going to the gym, to the library and even the DMV.  Eating out is just another activity, and one that doesn't suck.
  9. NO ONE CARES THAT YOU'RE DINING ALONE- The other diners don’t notice you and they don’t feel sorry for you. Unless, of course, you start crying or throwing up. At that point, you've just ruined everyone's night. But, don't let that scare you. 
  10. BECOME A REGULAR- I've always wanted to have a special place where I could say, "I'll have the usual, Frank," and an actual person named Frank would serve me my special something. But, you don't have to be on a first-name basis with the staff to feel comfortable in familiar surroundings. It can be easier to break into solo dining at a familiar restaurant. 
Bottom line, do some research. Check out a restaurant’s website to get a feel for the environment. You can check to see if it has dining service in the bar or patio, and if it caters more to the business crowd as opposed to couples.  If a restaurant advertises that it‘s wi-fi accessible, that’s a clear indication that it’s solo-friendly. But, even if solo dining isn’t typical for some special occasion restaurants like the Melting Pot or Fogo de Chao, don’t let that deter you from eating where you really want to eat.

Below are my picks for solo, upscale dining in Austin. This is by no means a complete list.
  • FINO - Large covered deck offers relaxed seating. Smaller, more intimate dining area in addition to the main dining room.
  • ASTI - Cook's counter seating available. (See earlier post here.)
  • OLIVIA - Olivia offers a special bar menu for casual dining in the small, but swanky bar. 
  • MAX'S WINE DIVE - Upscale food and wine, in a casual atmosphere. Table or bar seating are both suitable for solo dining.
  • UCHI - Sushi bar seating, ideal for dining solo

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