As a foodie eating alone is one experience you get used to very quickly as you seek out culinary destinations while checking new places, dishes or chefs. I had not much exposure to it until I went backpacking in my twenties and you find yourself in far flung corners of the globe looking at some strange dish in a quirky joint while the server looks at you even more strangely. In one case a small monkey jumped out of nowhere onto my shoulder in a seafood shack in Malaysia wanting to share said strange dish.
Later on as I sought out the best restaurants to try their haute cuisine there was not always someone around you could bring to the temples of gastronomy on a mid week lunch never mind a bill going into three figures. Fine dining alone is not everyone’s cup of tea but you will be eyed up very closely by the maitre d’. The chef doing their rounds afterwards will also be sure to stop at your table and when they find out you are a fellow soldier there is always a chat, a glass of wine or in one case a signed book from one Marco Pierre White.
The single customer has always been an issue for the restaurant as it means the table is only earning half its revenue and so you might get seated in the most unenviable part of the room like beside constantly swinging kitchen doors, adjacent to the toilets or the breezy and chilly front entrance. I was once almost in a back corridor of a full restaurant and another time so far away in a rear terrace I may as well have had the residential neighbours next door cook my meal.
At the very high end you will not be alone at being alone. At one three starred place half the tables were lone rangers like me and busy taking notes and photographs so it was obvious they were gastro tourists and journalists, you would never see a real inspector writing anything down. The place could have put us all at the same table for one big foodie conflab. Later on as an inspector, secret shopper or food critic it all became easier for me to occupy the time. Before mobile phones it was books or newspapers to stay occupied and even then the next table might take pity and chat intermittently to you across the way.
Either way you will get treated differently as the restaurant is on full inspector alert for any solitary customer. As a chef it was the mantra to do as much from scratch as possible for these customers to make sure there were no blips should it turn out to be someone out to write about or judge your performance. Critics will actually be allowed a guest and the guidebook inspectors for the serious places will be in twos or threes sometimes for second opinions so the restaurant will not always spot the sleuth.
For the ordinary member of the public it can be a case of someone not turning up or just being stood up and deciding to stay on so as to honour the booking. You will get some extra chit chat from the staff and if you are giving off an air of just being simply a customer eating by themselves then you may not get that extra sized portion, drink on the house or speedy service. You will be scrutinized though and if the verdict is that you are indeed an assessor and then it’s Showtime. No one is going to take any chances in the mind game that will follow for the next two hours.
Booking wise its best to just turn up on the off chance that there will be a table, there is no point making a reservation for two and then saying the other person could not make it. If you are going to book then say you are on your own. One thing I always disliked however was the whipping away of the other table setting leaving the blank space where someone would normally be sitting opposite you. It’s not as if we are going to use both sets of cutlery and glasses. Anyway if you do find yourself at a table for one just remember all around you staff and management are in a tizzy to make sure you get treated like royalty and you might even get a taste for it.