Katharine Kagel, the chef and owner of Pasqual’s Cafe in Santa Fe, New Mexico, defines the success of the restaurant’s “communal” table in two ways: “Two couples named their first child Pasqual because they met at our community table,” she says. And secondly, “One time I had a smaller table made to put in that space. I got so much flack in that 24-hour period. ‘It’s not big enough for my newspaper.’ People were so upset over the change of dimensions of the table; I had to make it disappear in 24 hours. ”
Communal tables, which offer seating similar to counter seating for people dining alone, are just one way restaurants can attract, take care of and encourage repeat business from solo diners. After all, as Marya Charles Alexander, editor and publisher of Carlsbad, California-based www.SoloDining.com, a Web site “devoted to taking the bite out of eating alone” and publisher of 150-Plus Tips On How to Attract & Keep Solo Diners for restaurants, points out: “Sooner or later everyone faces the challenge of eating out alone.”
At Pasqual’s, a 49-seat restaurant serving New Mexican-, Mexican- and Asian-inspired dishes and 15 wines by the glass, priced from $8 to $13, the communal table seats 12. The first thing she does is de-stigmatize the concept of group dining,according Kagel says, as people say “Oh, my God. I have to share my space.” So Kagel’s staff explains that it is like a counter so people can come and go at their own pace.
They also call it a “community” table. “It really is a community,” Kagel says. “It’s a great way to dine and dash for speed, meeting people and getting in.”
Counter and bar seating is another good method of bringing in more solo diners. “Pitch the entertainment component when it overlooks a prep area or open kitchen,” Alexander says. “Promise free cooking tips and occasional tastes of what is being prepared before them. As each diner is brought to the dining counter/bar, the accompanying staffer can make introductions to surrounding/neighboring diners.”
Upscale Solo Dining
Courting people dining alone isn’t limited to the counters and communal tables of lower-key bistros; it’s also an essential part of business for high-end hotels and destination restaurants. That’s pretty much what you’ll find at either The Garden wine bar and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon restaurant at The Four Seasons Hotel New York. The Garden seats about nine at the counter, although sommelier Lacey Rozinsky says solo diners may be offered a table if one is available. At the French and Asian-inspired L’Atelier, solo diners are given one of 20 counter seats in the 46-seat restaurant.
“Our counter seating looks like a sushi bar,” L’Atelier sommelier Jason Wagner says, “so there’s a lot of interaction between the servers, myself and the guests. We’re very close to them.”
Rozinsky adds, “Single diners often want to be engaged about the wine, willing to talk. If they do that, they get more personalized attention. Other single diners like to talk to each other and start conversations. Then you have single diners who want to be by themselves, they’re not really talking to anybody. It’s their alone time.” The wine bar offers almost 200 wines by the glass, priced from $12 to $40 a glass.
“In general I notice that solo diners are more willing to go for ‘premium’ wines, or wines at an average higher price point,” Wagner says. “Many solo diners also choose from our half bottle selection.”
Rozinsky, however, says, “I find that sometimes single diners are concerned about drinking too much as they are alone. So while they often ask for recommendations, they often order just a glass or two.”
Both restaurants offer magazines or newspapers to solo diners to read while they wait for their meal. “It’s all about reading your guest,” Rozinsky says. “If they want to be engaged or if they want to be left alone. When you’re talking to them [while seating them] you can tell right away whether or not they’re open to talking or if they just want to place their order and be left alone.”
Special events are also good ways to attract solo diners, Alexander says. “Wine tasting dinners are terrific for solo diners [as they offer a] high entertainment level and instant rapport with other guests, etc.,” he explains. “An ‘anti-Valentine’s Day’ dinner is always a pleaser and an easy draw for free media exposure.”
The anti-Valentine’s Day dinner worked well this year at Againn, a 135-seat British Isles bistro that offers an extensive wine, beer and 60-plus-long single-malt Scotch list, priced from $10 to $199 for two-ounce pours, in Washington, D.C. “We were looking for a little fun take on Valentine’s Day,” restaurant manager William Friedrichs says. “With Valentine’s Day falling on a Sunday, we wanted to do something on Saturday night. We came up with this idea while couples have their big night on Sunday night, we’ll have a dinner for the rest of us, if you know what I mean. We made sure people who didn’t have plans on Valentine’s Day were taken care of.”
For $39, diners got a prix fixe, three-course dinner and an à la carte menu was also available. The first-year event was “absolutely” profitable for the bistro, according to Friedrichs, which drew almost 200 dinners that night.
“It was a fun night,” says Friedrichs, adding that the restaurant attracted a mix of solo diners as well as groups that night. “We absolutely plan on doing it again next year.”
When Farmstead, a 110-seat restaurant offering an authentic farm-to-table menu, opened this winter as part of Long Meadow Ranch Winery & Farmstead, a sustainable food, wine and agricultural center in St. Helena, California, wine tastings and solo dinners were definitely part of the program.
With a central open kitchen, the restaurant offers booth and central seating, community dining and a full bar with seating on three sides. Operating seasonally are an outdoor bar near a fireplace and an outdoor “Tasting Arbor” located on the side of the tasting room, which is open daily. “Our goal is to create a destination that will be equally compelling for our local community as well as for the valley’s many visitors,” proprietor Chris Hall says.
Rozinsky has found The Garden’s offering of wine flights a good way to engage solo diners. And having a wide variety of wines by the glass is a must. “A lot of times when you go out by yourself, there are specific things that you want and you don’t want to get a full bottle,” she says. “It’s easier to come to the wine bar because we have almost 200 wines by the glass, priced from $12 to $40. You’re not stuck ordering the whole bottle. You can change it up.”
Women are less likely to dine alone—in hotels, restaurateurs say, they are more likely to order room service—but restaurants can attract this customer, too. Many women, according Alexander, can be concerned about undesirable seating, poor service and being hassled by other guests. To counterbalance this concern, he makes it known that the staff has been trained to be especially aware of female solos and prepared to intercede if they appear uncomfortable with attention from other guests.”
“We have some [women] guests that will stay in hotel that dine every night alone,” Wagner says. “There’s something about the interaction that makes it less intimidating …Make it known that the staff will call a cab for or walk solo females to their cars,” Alexander says.
Adds Rozinsky: “It’s more about recognizing that [women] have different needs than a single male diner.”
And for those restaurants with communal tables? “Near a hotel and motel that draws business travelers? Get the word out,” Alexander says. “This type of dining is a natural for this segment of solo diners.”
Speaking of which, Pasqual’s Kagel thinks her restaurant’s community table, which has been there since the cafe opened 31 years ago, has been one of her best investments. She picked it up when she was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and had it in her dining room before opening the restaurant. “It is an actual style of dining now,” she says. “I don’t think we’d ever be without it.”
Bottom line? Remember the basics. “Let ’em know they are welcome,” Alexander says. “Solos, in general, are unsure of a welcome in restaurants.”
Educate and sensitize the staff, Alexander suggests, and offer “an array of seating options from bar to counter to the ‘worst seat in the house,’ sweetened by a free hors d’oeuvre/beverage/dessert, etc.”
“Be flexible,” Wagner says. “Be engaging as well because you have to be friendly otherwise there’s no reason to come back. There are a million places to dine in New York City.”