If there’s one place where singulars can feel the pressure of being single, it’s when they dine out on their own. But with the advent of community tables, solo dining can be fun.
“Just one?” the hostess asks.
“Yes, the President will not be able to join me this evening,” I respond, smiling.
I enjoy dining alone once in awhile, whereas many singulars find it excruciatingly lonely or embarrassing — and the restaurant industry, on the whole, does not make it easy for us.
On this not-so-special occasion, I am offered an undesirable table next to the bathroom and a wait station, with clanking dishes and bustling staff talking about overtime shifts. The prime tables are for four or more bodies, while tables for two are slapped against a wall or physically touching along a bench seat with cramped elbow-room and no privacy.
“For just you, maybe you’d like to sit at the bar? I can’t release a table for four to just one person,” the hostess says, after I seek a better location for my meal and my sanity. “Just have a seat at the bar, and I’ll announce when your table is ready.”
Great. I’ll look forward to hearing my name announced to the entire lounge crowd as a “party of one.” Cheers!
The bartender approaches with a cocktail napkin and a compliment — sort of.
“Just you tonight?” he begins, “A pretty lady shouldn’t be out to dinner alone. Will someone be joining you?”
Smiling, I realize he simply needs to know how many napkins to place, and if the empty barstool next to me is an intentional save, on my part.
“Just me,” I say.
When Party of the First Part is announced for a lovely little table a spatula’s toss away from the kitchen, I accept and advance.
Now, I have the waiter to address. He clears the second place setting from my table when I respond for the umpteenth time, “Yes, just one.”
I can sense his disappointment that his gratuity is cut in half, and I forecast he may not pay much attention to my table after my meal is delivered, but I try to keep a positive outlook. With the kitchen so close, I don’t really need him, anyway.
The wine steward wants to know if anyone will be joining me, for a bottle of wine tonight? Umm … negatory. Just one. He clears the second glass. This is all per usual, and I accept that they are conserving energy by washing fewer items, but as each utensil or plate is pulled from the table, my single serving area becomes more apparent. I look at the single votive candle flickering next to my single water glass and think at least I’ve retained flammable material rights.
The waiter returns immediately. Are “we” ready to order? He obviously wants me to hurry back out the same way my solo self came in.
I explain that I’ve only had 30 seconds since being seated, and my menu hasn’t even been opened yet, so I’ll “just” need a moment, please. At this point, I’ve heard the word “just” so many times, I “just” can’t stop saying it, myself. Maybe he’s ending his shift, or maybe he’s had many uncomfortable singles ask how they can dine and dash, but he seems to be hurrying me. Of course, maybe I’m wrong … maybe it’s “just” me.
My server is now occupied by a large group in the corner, and I settle in for a long wait to garner any attention from him again. He apologizes as he passes twice before taking my order. I shun the lone diner’s compulsion to use a cell phone or read a book in a restaurant, and look around the place. I am, after all, paying for its upkeep and decor as a patron, and I may as well take it all in.
I consider taking out a notepad and jotting down nonsense, appearing to be either: (A) very busy and important, or (B) a food critic. Bring on the bribery! My important palate awaits.
Suddenly, I am approached by a genial manager who embarrasses me with my own sarcastic line when I entered.
“Since the President will not be joining you tonight, Miss (he smiles broadly), perhaps you’d care to join the community table in the corner? You’re more than welcome to stay where you are, but when the staff told me you were dining alone, I thought you should know we have the option for single diners to join our group table for dinner companions.”
Well, the President walking in the door at that moment could not have pleased me more! Unless, of course, he was carrying a plate with my dinner.
A few restaurants have incorporated group tables, party tables, or community tables — they fall under different titles in different venues — and my first visit to this place just got brighter.
Sometimes I don’t mind dining alone, but mostly, I am a foodie and I believe the whole dining experience should be shared, when possible. It’s also better for one’s digestion to slow down and eat more consciously, so yes, Grandma was right about that, too.
Restaurant owners can benefit from the community table idea, allowing patrons a comfort level for their shyness and/or increasing their small table turnaround on a busy night. Servers can focus effort to one location, and the guests will undoubtedly have a positive experience from meeting people or sharing restaurant stories, and maybe even connecting with career or dating possibilities.
I accepted the invitation, and thought of the singular diners grabbing a burger somewhere at a drive-through, when even a Burger King budget could support a salad and a coffee at most fine eateries, albeit less often. If only seating for all the “just ones” in the world felt as pleasant as this. Of course, if anyone at the table is unsavory, it’s back to the bar (Cheers!) or the bathroom, but so be it.
When I joined the group, my waiter added a chair and announced to my new culinary cohorts “there’s always room for just one more.” The word “just” always seems to belittle the subject it’s modifying, but in some cases, it also allows a single person to squeeze into last-minute situations and opportunities, like crowded elevators and community tables.
The trend of dining establishments considering singles’ needs may be linked to our burgeoning demographic. Or, it may be a result of many singulars’ requests at favored eateries. If you see a possibility for a group table at a place you enjoy, perhaps the management would try it. After all, it doesn’t seem like very much to ask, when it’s “just one,” right?
Text copyright © 2010 J.C. Russell