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Posted: May 16, 2013

Party of one: A five-step plan for going solo

The art of dining out alone, demystified

Laura Cook Newman

When asked about fears, public speaking ranks pretty high.There’s another fear, similar in its vulnerability, but far more damaging in my industry.  It not only affects a restaurant’s ability to make money, but also your personal enjoyment. 

It’s the awkward fear of dining out alone. 

“Solotrogophobia” is my best attempt at butchering Greek to neatly fit my own story-telling benefit. Don’t bother Googling it – just trust me on this. Yasou!

As an independent business traveler, I’ve had to summon up my courage to request “Table for one please?”  To salt my wounds, the hostess would sit me at a deuce, and not have the good sense to clear the additional place setting.  Then comes the dreaded follow up question from my server “Will anyone be joining you this evening?”  I’d quietly reply “No (gulp) I’m by myself”.

In my mind, sitting alone screamed to the rest of the dining room: “That lady has no friends,” or worse, “Poor thing - chick’s being stood up.”  How could I silently scream back “You’re right, I don’t have any friends in Lubbock, Texas, y’all!”

The cowardly business traveler has two options: fast food (on an expense account? Nope!) or room service. I know the thought of room service seems really highfalutin, but it’s usually a letdown – like a Nickelback album or the sequel to Weekend at Bernie’s. The tray of lukewarm food is incredibly average, the salad is smothered in the ubiquitous Ranch dressing, and how can you spontaneously order another glass of Merlot?  You can’t.

Besides, when city-hopping, I like to get out of my beige hotel room and search for hidden culinary jewels.  Using my digital treasure map (the TVFoodMaps app), I head out like a red plastic cup…SOLO.  My days of being anxious about dining avec moi are happily over. 

Here’s my five-step program for overcoming Solotrogophobia :

Star Treatment – Headed to a fine dining place?  Make a rezzie.  It’s a stealthy power play to the Maitre d’ who inevitably spreads word to the Chef.  “Who is this woman?  A food critic perhaps?” Voila!  Commence with the star treatment.

Sit on a Stool – Those uber trendy restaurants du jour are always impossible to get into except when you are flying solo.  Slip right under the radar by sitting at the bar.  Restaurants are amazingly well-equipped to serve you a fabulous meal bar-side, sometimes even offering a secret handshake “bar guests only” menu.

Be Present – Enjoy your food.  Smell it.  Savor it.  Remember it.  Pick up on subtle nuances in the “vibe” that sets this meal apart from last week’s business trip.  Otherwise, your travels blend together and you’re starring in your own version of Groundhog Day.

“Pardon me, could you please pass the Cholula” – Strike up a conversation with another bar mate.  No, this doesn’t mean you’re flirting with the person next to you, unless that’s your intention, then bravo for you!

Decompress – You’ve had a long day.  That TSA pat down was a little too aggressive and you lost your favorite red Swingline stapler. Now all you want to do is eat a tasty meal and mentally check out; you’re allowed.  “We are not human doings, we are human beings.”  So just be.

And now, what NOT to do:

This ain’t a library – Some food blogs will instruct you to bring reading material while dining alone – like some kind of intellectual security blanket.  Chef Laura says “no” to all props; they are crutches for the timid. Plus, you look ridiculous.

Mr. Bluetooth – The occasional check-in on FB is allowed, or the quick “I miss you” text is acceptable.  But no drawn out calls with your kidddos “Mommy wuvs you Schmoopie” or lengthy voicemails to your underlings “Um, Peter, um, yeah, did you get the memo about the new cover sheet for the TPS reports?”

The bartender is not your new BFF – Sure, they will chat you up accordingly, but they are not obligated to entertain you by juggling tiny plastic swords. 

The only rule you really should adhere to is: confidence.  You’re parting with your, or your company’s, hard-earned money.  You’re a valued customer – there’s no need to apologize for being a “single” (incidentally, that’s what restaurants call solo diners, regardless of their relationship status).  Instead of saying “I’m by myself”, how about “I’m with myself”?

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken” – Oscar Wilde

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at www.ThreeHotsAndaCot.net

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Readers Respond

you're article is great! I am a food service professional and am glad to say that I ALWAYS respect the solo diner, and there are things we as service professionals SHOULD do to make people feel more at ease. The best thing about your article actually comes from one of your reader's comments. I never knew that pretty solo female diners in Texas were lesbians!?!?!? How interesting! By Ta Tee on 2013 05 17
This article gets an A+ Laura. It's your best one yet! Luckily I've never had a fear of dining alone. Serve me some fabulous rare prime rib and I'm glad to be in my own world. Believe me...who really wants the pleasure of in the presence of a ravenous cave woman in a feeding frenzy? Let me get my canines on gristle and fat. Tendons and ligaments don't stand a chance around me. Give me skin, marrow, and cartilage. And yeah, give me the bill. I don't mind paying. You'll get a better tip too because I'm not footing the bill for a rum guzzling dinner partner! By Pamsclams on 2013 05 16
Coincidentally, I am traveling right now and breaking an above-mentioned "solo dining rule" as I type. Instead of savoring my Coors Light at Oakland International Airport, I am writing this response. How gauche! Anyhoo, I've enjoyed all your comments. Movies alone = absolutley! Steve Martin clip - yessir! Wit and Wisdom? Well color me happy and humbled. As for dating advice...well, maybe we'll broach that topic next week, as it seemed to genrate some interest. I wasn't exactly intending for this to turn into a "dating column", but then again, stranger things have happened. Time to fly, y'all. By Chef Laura on 2013 05 16
Good tips. I LOVE dining alone. Lets me savor my food instead of making chit chat. You know what else I love to do alone? Go to the movies! That's the ticket. No sharing popcorn, no whispering answers to "what did he say?" or "why is she going into the creepy house?" But bowling, well, that's no fun by yourself. By Abe Froman on 2013 05 16
Another great column. There are two areas that are easy to handle of maybe more easy for men than women. When traveling alone, you can advise the hotel dining room that you will be dining around a certain time and if they have another solo dinner you will welcome them as your table guest. This works well at conventions and you never know who you will be meeting: speaker, sales manager, vendor. The other option involves bar etiquette. Hopefully, if you have struck up a conversation with a male in the bar and decided to eat he should check about moving to a table. It makes it easier for the bartender to serve the in and out crowd and the hustlers who tip well and makes it easier to have a relaxed, no obligation dinner. Unfortunately, room service does suck for everyone. The only thing worse than room service is hospital food. By Jeffrey Fischer on 2013 05 16
Chef Laura .... you write with wit and wisdom. Thanks for reminding me that good content can be presented with literary flair and smile-inducing references! By Robert on 2013 05 16
So when I'm alone at a restaurant, I try to sit at the bar. My problem is if I am trying pick up on one of my fellow solo dinners I think I come across as creepy. Any suggestions on ways to do so smoothly? By New York Johnny on 2013 05 16
Love it! Once I went to a movie alone. When I go to the box office and asked for one ticket, the cashier said just loud enough for those at the end of the line to hear, "One? You want one ticket?" I straightened up my back, said, "Yes," went in and had a great time.....it can be done when dining out, too. Confidence - you are right, Laura. By Andi Pearson on 2013 05 16
Honey, Love the article! But being from Lubbock, if we see a sweet looking lady alone at a restaurant we don't think she doesn't have any friends, we think she is a lesbian. By Jeff from Texas on 2013 05 16
Chef Laura, I always look forward to your column! Brava ! By Golden Girl on 2013 05 16
As George Carlin once said: "'No Comment' is a comment." Single at the bar is the best option. I HAVE brought a book when sitting alone at a table. Beats watching all the other folks who already have their food. Article reminds me of Steve Martin in "The Lonely Guy" see link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQ7CNUuoe3E Keep up the good work! By No Comment on 2013 05 16
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