Table for One – The slight against solo diners
Updated: Nov 10, 2021
I have few particular complaints about my single lifestyle. It allows me to be nimble and spontaneous, easily adapt to new circumstances, make my own rules at home, and travel like crazy. Sure, it's lonesome sometimes, and I certainly crave the companionship that a significant other would provide, but by no means do I find myself racing to settle down with someone.
The problem is that our society is not structured for single people, despite a recent estimate for the first time in history that the number of unmarried adults in this country exceeds the number of married adults. You pay measurably less in taxes, insurance, and health care costs as a couple. There are constant social pressures and expectations to get hitched––"when are you going to settle down?" "You'll want kids eventually." "You just need to find someone special!" Or, my favorite, "It's a couple's world."
I generally don't care much about such things, likely because I am numb to them by now, but there is a broad literature about the structural bias against single people in American society. I suppose the defaults of society are not ill-intentioned, but can be pernicious nonetheless. I read an article recently on WBUR's website about this phenomenon and was struck by the concluding passage:
If we are to survive — let alone thrive — in a world that is increasingly awash in violence tied to differences in race, religion, politics and lifestyle, to name just a few flash points, we need to examine the “default assumptions” that inform our daily lives. The thing that makes it tricky: Default assumptions almost never present themselves as such. Rather, they tend to call themselves “reality” or “truth.” Yes, our intentions are good, but good intentions aren’t enough. Our world demands nothing less than acts of empathic imagination. Facing up to singlism may seem small, but it’s excellent practice.
The "default assumption" against single diners in the food world is the one that really sticks in my craw. Beyond being chronically single and sparse on friends, my particular dining habits make it pretty damn hard to find a companion. For a while, eating out alone felt pathetic and lonely to me, and I rarely ventured out by myself to eat unless I could find someone to join. Now, it's just second nature––when I eat out, particularly when traveling, I am alone far more often than I am accompanied. In fact, I actually enjoy eating out on my own––it gives me the opportunity to savor every bite of the food and every sip of the wine without distraction. It is a deeper, more personal, intimate experience, and I find it rather empowering. And sometimes, particularly after a few drinks, I develop the gumption to meet someone new at the table or barstool next to me should I want to be social. The problem is that while I have evolved, and socially we have (mostly) evolved beyond viewing that solo diner in the dark corner table as a miserable, wretched loner who couldn't find a date, the food industry seems to have not evolved, and is, in fact, getting worse.
These days, you understandably need a reservation for pretty much any fine dining establishment in the world, and often you have to slide in weeks or months in advance. Online systems like Tock, Resy, or OpenTable are ubiquitous and obviously efficient mechanisms for creating reservation inventory and maintaining it. They save restaurants significant amounts of time and money. The problem is that these management systems can do one thing, and that's dole out a set inventory of reservations until they are gone. The restaurant itself needs to input that inventory, and many view tables for one as two-tops, ignoring (willfully or not) solo diners that might be seeking a table. I cannot tell you how many times I have searched for availability online for a party of one to see no reservations available, only to search for a table for two to find wide open availability. But these are software programs, not humans, that cannot appreciate that nuance.
But what's worse, increasingly, online systems expressly exclude the possibility of booking a table for one at many restaurants. Selecting a party of one is not even an option anymore at, to my estimation, at least half of the fine dining restaurants which I try to patronize. This is a new trend, one that was starting before the pandemic, but has noticeably accelerated since. During a recent search for restaurants to try on an upcoming trip to London, for example, four of the five restaurants on my short-list did not list a table for one as an option online. Other places are kind enough to take you in but won't let you embark on certain offerings, like set menus, as a solo diner––"this experience is reserved for a minimum of two people."
The solution for the dejected solo diner is, of course, to email or call the restaurant and ask for accommodation. But the fact that solo diners have to take that extra step in the first place is emblematic of the larger problem––a couple gets to just make the reservation in a seamless online interaction, but the single diner has to pass a second test, perform a second task, abide by a special set of rules just for them, in order to be bestowed the honor of dining out. Intentional or not, this reeks of a pernicious default assumption in favor of couples and families and against those who are single.
Usually, a restaurant will find some way to accommodate if they have availability. But more and more, especially since the pandemic, I have had reservationists, human beings and not online inventory management systems, reply that they are not accommodating single diners at all. The pandemic is often the excuse they use––from a famed sushi bar in New York, one which I've been champing at the bit to sample, I received this reply: "[D]ue to capacity restrictions, we are currently allowing even sized parties only at this time." (Note there were, in fact, reservations for three available online). Add to that an again well-intentioned, but sorta stinging, "Is there anyone else you would like to dine with?" at the end of the email, and the transparent perniciousness is thrown into pretty sharp relief. Even my two favorite restaurants in the country, one of which I have patronized six times this year, have recently turned me away for a reservation just because I was a party of one.
Another clear cause of this, to my mind, is that the restaurant industry has been facing increased financial crunches year after year, and very much operates on the margins in many cases. The pandemic certainly was the worst financial crunch of all for the industry. I get that. I get that a two-top at a tasting menu restaurant is twice as revenue-generating and occupies the same space and time as a table for one, and that tables are in short supply. It seems to me, however, that a place offering that caliber of food wouldn't feel a meaningful hit to their margins, and for non-set price places, a food-loving single diner like me might very well spend more than a couple would, hoping to sample as much of the food and beverage options as possible, and these diners often tip better! There is no way to know or predict the behavior of your diners, but it's very easy, again, to fall back on default assumptions about what a one-top versus a two-top ends up looking like on your ledger.
Moreover, what is the cost of deterring these diners? Take my example from above regarding my upcoming trip to London. Four of the five restaurants didn't have an option to book a table for one online. Guess which one will get my money? And even if five of five didn't have options for one online, I am a go-getter when it comes to these sorts of things and I will reach out. But most people are not like me. Imagine the restaurant with wide-open two-tops on a given night who doesn't offer spots for one in their online system, so the solo diner with less willingness to take the extra steps just looks elsewhere and that two-top sits empty.
The problem isn't just in restaurants, either. I can't count the number of times I have had to ask a butcher to cut a piece of fish into a smaller portion so I could take it home for just me, or how many times I have had to answer the question "just one?" at a meat or seafood counter. Burger patties are almost always packaged in pairs or more. Produce in supermarkets is often bundled or packaged in a way that makes it difficult for a single person to consume all of it before it perishes unless maybe they are eating it every day. I can't remember the last time I actually finished a box of arugula, even though it is one of my favorite greens. With such a staggering food waste problem in this country, and a surging number of people eating alone at home, it seems the whole industry might need a reality check.
I suppose my point is that I am rather weary of this blindspot, and it's starting to make me downright angry as a frequent single diner. Even at restaurants where I'm a regular, where I've brought bucketloads of my money to spend, I have to fight to get a table these days. It makes me feel undervalued and invisible, and every email I have to send groveling for a table chips away at the confidence and joy I have built surrounding my solo dining.
I realize that I am of course incredibly privileged to have the resources to dine at such places in the first place, and I of course have been able to successfully score reservations at myriad wonderful places as a party of one. But it seems to me that the food industry, high-end and approachable alike, is missing some of the fundamental changes to our social structure in the name of the bottom line, a figure that may not be affected the way they think it is by their policies that slight solo diners. In the process, they are alienating these diners, who are often some of the most dedicated, inquisitive, passionate eaters out there. Food critics. Wanderers. Businesspeople. Ravenous food pilgrims. Beyond the particular cruelty of carrying on with an unfair default assumption and therefore excluding these people, they are missing out on the opportunity to commune with them over their food; their art.
If the bottom line is all this industry cares about, then it's an industry that I don't recognize anymore.