People often dine out in groups. Whether it's family, a group of friends, or a cluster of office workers, eating out is often as much a social experience as it is one to try out new flavors and dishes.
Nonetheless, there are many reasons one may eschew the group experience and dine alone. Perhaps you are single and your friends are busy. You might be on a business trip and tire of room service food. Perhaps you have some paperwork or computing to accomplish and tire of sitting in your office / cubicle. Or, you might have the day off and just want to relax without having to worry about cooking and cleaning up.
While restaurants should serve everyone, in many instances larger groups are preferred. Busy restaurants don't like to offer tables for four to just one person while making a party of three wait. Servers naturally will flock to larger throngs as these usually result in higher tips, and in some cases these are automatically added to the bill! Plus, restaurants located near areas of high foot traffic may want to place larger groups closest to the doors and windows to make it look busier from the outside, knowing that busy restaurants do tend to attract more diners. However, by following the below advice you should have a more pleasurable dining experience when there is no company joining you.
1) Avoid Peak Times
Though not always possible due to your schedule or dietary needs, consider dining out at restaurants during off-peak times. If restaurants are not packed with tons of customers, you are more likely to receive a desired table. Plus, this increases the chances of keeping a server's attention, as during peak times they will most likely gravitate towards the larger parties due to tips.
Of course, there are potential downsides. Restaurants may plan around having fewer customers by hiring fewer servers. If you eat late, the food may not be as fresh. And you don't want to eat too late - ordering dinner a quarter hour before a restaurant closes will not make you too popular with the cooks.
2) Don't be Too Disappointed with Your Seat
Don't expect a primo seat during peak times. However, if a restaurant has plenty of open tables it should be OK to ask for a better location, especially if you are placed next to the restroom or kitchen doors (high traffic areas). Unless the restaurant is almost barren, however, please don't ask to be moved to a big table as those will be reserved for larger groups.
3) Look to the Bar
Even if you don't plan on having a cocktail or other alcoholic refreshment, consider eating at the bar area as long as the entire menu is available. Not only may this result in quicker service, but you may receive extra attention such as quicker refills, more napkins when asking, extra sauce, etc. Plus, there's a chance for some socialization, and perhaps a fellow patron may leave a newspaper to read (they still exist).
Note that in some municipalities, non-smokers may want to stay away from the bar area to avoid second-hand smoke. However, many areas have rules preventing smoking in restaurants or other public places (even bars inside restaurants), making the bar area an acceptable place for them to eat.
4) Be Personable
Smile when talking to your host / hostess / waiter / waitress / bartender. Start up a conversation unless they are extremely busy. Look up when they talk to you and don't keep your face down in a newspaper, cell phone, or iPad. Don't treat restaurant workers as servants but as real people working and trying to get through the day. Good manners, good cheer, and respect can be contagious.
5) Tip Well
If the food is good, the service at least acceptable, and you plan on returning to a restaurant often, tip well. This doesn't mean you have to tip a whopping 30% each time, but don't skimp and tip 10% or even exactly 15% at every meal. Trust me, bartenders and servers do remember faces and names. Stories of bad tips are shared, and conversely at some locales, you may be surprised at how much better you get treated if you are known for tipping generously or even fairly. Being known as a “regular" could result in fringe benefits such as having a drink removed from your bill or an occasional free appetizer.
If you want the best service at a restaurant when dining alone, be friendly and flexible. Dining at off-peak times may result in more attention from servers. Be willing to sit near high traffic areas, but don't be afraid to speak up for a change of seating if a restaurant is not too busy. Consider the bar for faster service and even more attention. Sport a smile and a friendly personality. And probably the most important for repeat customers, tip well. If you stand out as a friendly customer that treats the staff with respect, you will more likely have better experiences when dining alone.
Copyright 2011 Andrew Malek.
Andrew Malek is the creator and owner of myFaveFood, a social network for "foodies, gourmets, gastronomes, and anyone who enjoys a good meal". Members can discuss their favorite foods when dining out, vote on others’ choices, and discuss their experiences dining out in the forums. Membership is free and includes a profile page with the ability to “Fellow Foodie" diners with like-minded interests. To sign up, visit http://myfavefood.com .