Table for one
In recent years there has been a surge in solo dining.
A third of Brits now eat out alone monthly and 10% do so weekly, increasing single-table bookings by 38% between 2014 and 2017, and far from a being Western phenomenon, 46% of Chinese diners regularly eat solo.
So what is driving this trend?
Some diners actively seek to eat alone. While meals out are typically associated with bonding and connecting, solo dining presents an opportunity to escape social interaction. Those aged 25 to 34 year-olds are the most likely to eat out alone, while 16% of solo diners in China prefer to eat alone as a means of reducing anxiety.
Solo eating has also risen amongst affluent, busy individuals who lack the time to cook. In the UK, dining alone is more prevalent in the south (74% monthly) than the north (57% monthly), reflecting longer working hours as diners finish tasks while eating. In Korea, 38% of 30-somethings signalled lack of time as a reason for eating alone.
Factors such as fewer marriages, later marriage, and growth in divorce are driving a global increase in singledom and living alone, with a knock-on effect for solo dining.
Benefits for operators
Restaurateur Stephen Beckta regards single tables as “the greatest compliment a restaurant can receive”. Solo diners have a reputation for noticing more about the food and drink. Lone diners also tend to vacate their seats more quickly, increasing opportunity for more covers.
Some restaurants want visitors to truly embrace the prospect of eating alone. Eenmaal (‘dinner for one’) in Amsterdam is a one-person restaurant which aims to remove the stigma of solo dining and help diners have a restorative experience. Use of electronics is discouraged, signalling that disconnection is okay.
However, there are barriers. While over 70% of diners would eat out alone for lunch, breakfast or brunch, just 57% would eat dinner alone due to the more social nature of this meal. Furthermore, while tables for one account for 27% of meals at fast food restaurants, 50% at coffee shops and 38% at quick serve, solo diners are less comfortable at full-service restaurants.
Generating return visits relies upon creating a comfortable experience. While much of this comes down to treatment by staff (not overcompensating, removing other tableware and ‘normal’ engagement), and even appropriate portion sizing, reconfiguring space can help too.
For those who wish to feel engaged and included, seats which overlook the bar or kitchen can provide entertainment and a talking point. Asian restaurants execute this well: the bustle of communal seating makes diners feel more anonymous, and open kitchens and sushi counters provide ‘built in’ entertainment. Top of the Market in San Diego prioritises solo diners by offering cooking demos and tastings for those seated at the bar.
Appropriately-sized seats backing onto walls allow quieter diners to blend in and people-watch. Providing Wi-Fi and charging points for electronics can make the experience easier – a quarter of us view our phones as a reasonable substitute for a human dinner companion – while also being functional for workers.
With all this in mind, it seems that there are some clear shifts in the norms of diner behaviour, and scope to evolve restaurant concepts to capitalise on the changes.