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Jan 30, 2011 07:30 PM

Dining Alone - Experiences, treatment by restaurant staff

What are your experiences when dining alone, particularly in fine dining places or at least 'nice' places? How does the staff treat you? How do you manage 'signals' you wish to convey?

I am mulling thoughts about these topics yet again after eating by myself in several fine dining places (established places, but new to me) over the last few days. I had formal reservations for ONE (i.e. just myself) at all the restaurants, with bookings made online.

At all places I was seated promptly upon presenting myself [the reservation being noted at once], although at one place I suspect I was shunted to a 'marginal table'.

At place A (a high-end chain) I then waited for 10-15 min before a server even appeared table-side and he was hesitating before putting down water and bread + a veggie munchies plate. Another 5 minutes before the waiter came up to me with the menu and wine list. It also took a while for him to get back to me with my wine, but service was fine from then on.

At place B (a local place) I was seated with a menu furnished by the Maitre 'd and the waiter appeared tableside after 5-10 min, not as long as at place B. I had to ask for the wine list, however. Once I had made my orders, service was fine and the waiter was obliging.

At place C (a high-end famous local establishment, an "institution" of sorts) I waited for 5-10 minutes while watching newer arrivals (couples) being seated and furnished with menus and bread and water immediately. I watched the waiters passing a quick eye over me but ignoring me. I was indeed waiting to see what they would do so did not specifically call them over. A busboy whizzed by and placed two glasses of water on my table before I could stop him from putting the second glass down. Eventually a waiter finally walked over with the menu (and I muttered to him that I was wondering when they would decide to get round to me...perhaps with an edge to my voice). No wine list. I had to call him back and ask for it. Once he took my orders, however, service was fine.

In all three cases the cutlery for the other place at the table was left on the table, and it is probable in all three cases the waiters were "waiting" for my supposed companion to appear. I considered moving the "spare" cutlery to one side to signify that my table was complete (i.e. just me) but it seems to me that (i) the Maitre 'd or person who seated me should have been the one to do so [which indeed is done at some other places I've dined at], or (ii) the waitstaff should either be in better contact with the reservation desk/Maitre 'd, or should approach me much faster and at least ask if I would like something to drink while obliquely inquiring if I was waiting for a companion.

What are your experiences and how would you handle such situations?

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  1. This is why, when I'm alone, I will almost always eat at the bar - bartenders are used to this and the service tends to be better for the solo diner. My wife, on the other hand, would never sit alone at a bar to eat while away on business - so I shared this with her. First, whoever seats you should always pick up any "spare" cutlery, glasses, etc. The busboy, runners and often servers, are not usually privy to how many people are eating except by looking at the number of places set. This is their cue. If places are left set, this can lead to them believing that you are waiting for someone (maybe in the restroom?) and it would be rude to for them to go over the menu, take your drink order etc., until your DC arrived at the table.
    After that, the next problem with restaurants is that they absolutely hate 1 tops, from the owner to the servers. They just don't believe there's enough money to be made which leads to this oxymoron: Why does the restaurant drag it out? They should take care of the 1 top, serve them quickly (and always politely) and they will get out of there faster. They don't waste time "chatting" with anyone, although you can get the camper – my wife – who brings a book with her (although she’s good in that, if people are waiting, she tends to eat and run). Bottom line is you can take very good care of a 1 top and turn the table pretty fast. 1 top’s often (at least I do) tip out at a higher percentage, especially on a smaller tab. Why restaurants drag out service to people when they're dining alone always baffled me. They are the ones you can get through the fastest. Then there’s the chance that they’ll come back someday with a big group and drop lots of money.

    3 Replies
    1. re: bobbert

      As a single diner I find the notion of "serve them quickly...and they will get out of there faster" (no matter how politely) equally as ill-mannered as inattentive service.

      1. re: bobbert

        If your wife wants to be more well received, she shouldn't camp at the table. People waiting want to eat, sure, but the server also wants the opportunity to continue to make money at their table, which you're preventing them from doing by camping. It's not a coffee shop, it's a restaurant. Eat and then leave. If you want to linger over your drink for a long time, be it alcoholic or non, sit at the bar.

        1. re: bobbert

          Thanks for the comments. Yes, my experience as a single diner has been testy on many occasions too. I know I am not the only one, as your response confirms. I tend to agree that restaurants here seem to think single diners aren't bringing in enough money - it irritates me; not least because I have a generally healthy appetite and not infrequently order as much stuff as and sometimes even more stuff than what I can subsequently observe some other tables of two (or even three, on occasion) get for themselves, in monetary terms if not in absolute volume. As for "attending to 1 tops quickly etc", I agree - and wouldn't be insulted as long as it was clear that they were not rushing me. If they do, it is ill-mannered, as kmcarr says.

          The 'extra cutlery etc' I agree should have been picked up by the host/hostess/Maitre 'd (as meatn3 also says below; ditto Harters in an implied way - thanks, guys) - that would have immediately clarified the situation. I've found that this is done inconsistently in my experience - except that at various mid-level to modest places (including several Chinese restaurants - HEH!!) I go to it has ALWAYS been done IIRC. Shame on you, fine dining establishments!

          Yes, I do sit at the bar at restaurants too - although I prefer a table myself unless there is none available (e.g. if I "just turn up" without a reservation). [ However, I somewhat like sitting at the bar at Naha in Chicago. :-) ]

        2. Can't recall an occasion when I've been treated differently when alone than with others (except on a couple of occasions where I felt I had got particularly attentive service simply because I was on my own).

          Seems strange in my culture that singles would ever be treated less well than other customers - and , indeed, bobbert pretty much describes which should (and usually does) happen, in my experience..

          1. Each of your situations seems to point to the staff watching and waiting for a dining companion to appear. If eye contact is made just let them know you are ready. As simple as a raised eyebrow and a gesture with your head and a smile!

            If the extra cutlery is not removed when you are seated you can be proactive by asking the Maitre'd, etc. to relay to your server that you would like to place a drink order before you look over the menu. Or whatever - just a way to nudge the process along.

            Yes, communication would be better in an ideal world, but I wouldn't hold my breath. :-)

            Another thought, as an ex-server I remember how awkward it could be when a single person was seated who was waiting for a date and ended up getting stood up. You didn't want to ignore them, yet you didn't want them feel pressured. You also (as it became clear what was happening) didn't want to add to their discomfort. It was awful watching someone who sparkled with anticipation moving step by step towards anger and/or disappointment. The server, as witness, often is on the receiving end of the emotional backlash.

            I guess the point I'm trying to make is that the residual of this type of experience may have some bearing on the staff initially watching and waiting before approaching a solo diner.

            1 Reply
            1. re: meatn3

              Very good point about the 'aborted date'/'failed date'. I had not considered that at all. Thanks for the viewpoint.

              Yes, I should get the Maitre 'd/host/hostess involved, signal clearly to the server, etc - but I have a tendency to just sit back and see what they do, how they handle me, at places that I go to for the first time...a kind of test, if you will. If I then return, e.g. because the food was good and the subsequent service good etc etc, I will know what to do if they have not changed their ways.

            2. Me think the persons responsible (maitre d'hotel, wait staff, ... ) were not aware you were alone; in most cases, I always state that I'm alone when seated at a table.

              In general, I was always treated very well when going out "single" either seating at a table or at the bar; and that's for low/mid and high-end restaurants.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Maximilien

                I too have always been treated well when dining alone. I do some travel for business and I almost always opt to sit at the bar, however doing that as a female dining solo can sometimes attract unwanted attention from overly friendly patrons. Luckily that is not the norm but definitely happens. There have been only a handful of times I have sat at a table for 2 on my own but again I was treated well.

                1. re: Maximilien

                  ...except that when I made the reservations I had specified a party of one (just myself), and in fact at all three places I have mentioned the booking was made via OpenTable - so the notations that the reservation was for ONE diner would/should have been part of the screen info for any of the hosts/hostesses/Maitre'ds who received me and seated me. The waiters may not have been immediately aware of this, but the Maitre 'ds should have been.

                2. I have eaten 100s of meal alone on business and would say that 95+% of the time it is an extremely pleasant and professional experience. The other 5% has been the server havehis "solo diner syndrome leaving a bad tip" fulfilled. Add to the equation that I do not drink and you have the background.

                  The normal bad service includes:

                  - totally ignoring me
                  - not telling me the specials
                  - delivering the entree as soon as the appetizer is completed
                  - no bread while others received it
                  - no water refills
                  - table next to the bathroom

                  The result is always the same...reduction or zippo tippo and a quick chat with the MOD on the way out, if required. If deserved I give the MOD a 5-10 and ask him to give to the other staff who earned it.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: jfood

                    I've eaten by myself most of the time and have decades of experience in that regard. :-)

                    I get service ranging from excellent to poor. I would say for me the majority of times it has been fine to good, especially at places that know me, of course, but I also experience not-so-nice experiences as I described in my original post. It was, in fact, because I had three successive less-than-ideal experiences at relatively high-end places that prompted my post.

                    Yes, I've got the bad treatment you describe too.