This story is part of MOLD Magazine: Issue 02, A Seat at the Table. Order your limited edition issue here.
If the thought of enjoying a seven-course tasting menu at a Michelin-starred restaurant by yourself sounds wildly awkward, consider this: when are you ever really alone? Thanks to the iPhone, we have hundreds of friends at our fingertips no matter where we are. It’s for this reason (and the world’s increasing interest in gastronomy) that #diningalone has 7,000 posts on Instagram and OpenTable, the online restaurant reservation system, saw bookings for parties of one grow by 62% in 2015. But unless you’re slurping ramen in one of Ichiran’s “flavor concentration booths” designed specifically to seal off individual diners, chances are that going to a restaurant alone can still inspire nervous feelings. With that in mind, we checked in with experts from across various fields to see if there’s a perfect formula for this fast-emerging group. Here are some of the design choices for making solo diners feel welcome.
The fine dining industry has seen an uptick in reservations for one because, well, foodies really love their food! Eating alone allows you to focus on the flavors and presents a greater opportunity to engage with staff to learn more about your meal. Chef Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy doesn’t feel sorry for people on their own (“they’re having dinner with the coolest person they know!”), but she does admit to giving them extra attention. “I think that there is a certain amount of social pressure not to go to a restaurant if you’re by yourself, and to me, the people flying solo in the Dirt Candy dining room often look like they have the most fun. I want them to keep coming back,” she says. To further entice them, Cohen holds Solo Diner’s Week at Dirt Candy and creates a special tasting menu so the person can try just as many dishes as they would eating with someone else. “To me, the worst part about eating alone is that you don’t get to try as many different dishes. So I’d rather make the portions smaller but still send out the same enormous number of dishes. I’ve always thought the fun of eating out was getting to taste a bunch of different flavors, rather than just filling up on one plate.”
While they’ve never designed a table for one like those found at Eenmaal—a now-defunct restaurant concept in Amsterdam dedicated to singles only—Brooklyn’s Home Studios has created several establishments that place prominence on the bar area, which is where most individual eaters tend to gravitate. Home Studios’ Oliver Haslegrave says centrally placed bars with some curve or return creates a feeling of shared energy. “I can see how having a [circular] communal-style bar could make a solo diner feel more included, but if everybody else is in a group, it might make you feel more self-conscious,” he says. “Whereas if you’re at a straight bar, no one is really looking at you.” Another aspect they consider is powering up at the bar: “Depending on the project we’ve added outlets and/or USB ports under the counter where the coat hook would be, but they’re as discreet as possible and as integrated as possible.” As he notes, having wires around can kill the vibe. It’s for that reason he thinks adapting the architecture or interiors for individual eaters isn’t as important as having a hospitable staff that goes the extra mile to make that person comfortable.
The way restaurant employees react to a solo diner matters immensely; a friendly server can make or break the experience. Sam Lipp, Director of Operations of Union Square Cafe and Daily Provisions, says the crucial element in making solo diners (or any guest) feel welcome is to listen to their verbal and non-verbal cues. “Some solo guests come with a book and headphones—a sign that says, ‘please give me what I order and allow me to have my zen moment to myself.’ Some come with their phone and lots of eye contact. They are asking for engagement and want to learn about what we do, and why, and even how,” says Lipp. USC, open since 1985, has a reputation for celebrating solo diners and includes that as part of their teaching philosophy for all new hires. “These guests decided to join us, despite their lack of a companion. That tells us something about who they are and how they view us. That’s a gift we embrace wholeheartedly.”
Fast-casual might be the king of solo dining, and Chipotle’s music makes it not only a place to eat a quick meal but to imbibe in the latest hits; this burrito behemoth puts serious effort into their playlists. Chipotle’s music director, Chris Golub, says, “Music is not only a critical component to the vibe of a dining room, it affects how a guest experiences his or her food while dining in that environment. This group of guests is constantly in my mind when piecing together the program that plays in Chipotle throughout the world. I know when I’m eating solo, I try not to bring up my phone and get lost in the ether that is the Internet. Personally, I want to engage all senses while dining and music is a super big part of that engagement, especially when solo!” But is there an exact formula to soothe someone eating alone, in the way in which Brian Eno reimagined airport music? “I never limit what I program to a certain genre, album or artist. To me, what I think resonates most to the solo diner is engagement,” says Golub. “A balance of known beats that are in a new package work super well. Songs that inspire, are upbeat, unexpected and fit with the surroundings (especially the elements and architecture of the building) work extremely well.”
Self-driving cars are here and hopefully the way forward for Americans who find themselves in the fast-growing “extreme commute” (90-plus minutes) to work each day. We checked in with California-based industrial designer Michael DiTullo to see how autonomous vehicles could become a dining excursion for one. DiTullo, who has designed everything from cars to sneakers, recently sparked a debate around self-driving cars for the industrial design website Core77, so we asked him to extrapolate on his ideas for mobile dining. He starts with the food itself: “Driving can be a bumpy affair. I can’t imagine trying to eat piping-hot soup in Los Angeles traffic. I do imagine really creative uses for gourmet finger foods and drinkables.” Looking for breakfast on the way to work, or dinner on the way home? In the future your autonomous car could provide a meal, with or without a chef there to prepare it for you. “The car could have a killer version of a hotel mini bar, or I’ll be able to make my own food—the variable will be cost,” he says. “Getting a car with a pay-to-play mini bar is going to have a different per-mile cost than one that shows up with Mario Batali in it ready to whip up some fresh pasta.” And finally, how do we avoid feeling so alone? “There could be a connection to other mobile diners. Imagine a full-sized screen completing the other side of the dining car’s table, so it appears as if you were facing another diner in transit.”
Special thanks to Ichiran and Donna (designed by Home Studios).