Party of One

Dear Helena,

I often travel for business, and go to restaurants by myself. However, I am unsure about the etiquette of dining solo. Are you obligated to sit at the bar, even if you’d rather have your own table? Is it rude to read while eating? Is there a way I can be more comfortable dining solo, and not feel like everybody’s viewing me as a total loser who doesn’t have any friends? —Han Solo

Dear Han Solo,

Solo diners are not second-class citizens. You have the same rights as those dining in a group. That means you get to sit at a table if you want to. People eating in groups don’t feel bad when there’s an empty chair at their table. Neither should you. If the place is packed, you may choose to sit at the bar as a courtesy, but you’re not obliged to forgo a table.

If the restaurant has a chef’s counter, you might consider eating your dinner there. Thalia Loffredo, co-owner of Zoë in New York (which is known for pampering solo diners), recommends this option: “You build a rapport with the cooks and may end up getting tastes and treats you wouldn’t get at a table.”

If you’d rather have a table, don’t feel guilty about taking up a two-top. Smart restaurants know people like you are good business. Zoë co-owner (and Thalia’s husband) Stephen Loffredo says that though solo diners spend about the same at lunch as those with companions, at dinner, singletons tend to spoil themselves. “They’ve been shopping and are tired or they’re traveling for business and want to relax,” he explains. Thalia Loffredo says that two people may “split a salad and drink water,” spending less than a single who splurges. Besides, she says, solo diners can be good repeat customers, often returning with their friends “because they don’t want you to think they don’t have any.”

Still feeling worried? Marya Charles Alexander, who advises restaurants and customers on all aspects of solo dining, suggests that you order a bottle of wine. This will help you relax and enjoy your meal, and is also a way for you to ingratiate yourself with the restaurant. “Drink a couple of glasses, and then send it back to the kitchen with your compliments,” Alexander says. “That way, the restaurant staff will remember you next time.”

It’s OK to read. “I’ve asked hundreds of white-tablecloth establishments,” says Alexander, “and restaurants just want you to be comfortable.” Lanny Lancarte, owner of Lanny’s Alta Cocina Mexicana, an upscale restaurant in Fort Worth, agrees: “Staring at the wall or at the artwork can get boring.”

Solo diners usually receive a few curious glances from other customers. But according to Alexander, all other diners want is “to know that solo dining is OK with you.” So when anyone looks over, give him or her a cheery smile. You’ve reason to be happy: Unlike that person, you’ve got no one to distract you from savoring every bite.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.