I f there is one recent trend in Britain's dining scene that has divided foodies like few others, it's the no-reservations restaurant. While egalitarians raise their glasses to an end to position and privilege snaffling the best tables, traditionalists grumble that standing in the rain outside a doorway is not exactly a relaxing start to a meal.
But it seems that the first-come, first-served eateries play in the favour of one side of another great gulf among restaurant goers: those of us who are happy to dine in the company of just ourselves, our food and perhaps a good read – and those filled with horror at the thought of uttering the dreaded words: "A table for one, please."
Eschewing the pack mentality, it seems, is one of the few ways to skip the queue and secure a swift seating in some of the hippest joints springing up around the country. And these restaurants are positively embracing the lone wolves, allowing us solo diners to finally shake off our lingering pariah status.
"I think more and more places are welcoming solo diners because they make up a very significant percentage of the restaurant-going public," says Russell Norman, the restaurateur behind London's Polpo, where diners can prop themselves up at a bar and work their way through plate after plate of delicious Venetian tapas-style dishes. "The casual approach of many restaurants actually favours solo diners; it's easier to get a single spot without a booking than if you are, say, a party of four or six."
I belong firmly to the category of diners happy to perch at a bar or table and tuck in alone. It was a habit formed during years spent working as a reporter overseas, where solo assignments to far-flung corners often meant I had little choice but to eat by myself.
A thick skin is still required in many countries, especially in Asia, where there is a huge emphasis on membership of a group as an extension of the family and the lone Westerner tucking in to a plate of noodles is frankly considered a little odd.
Now I rather relish the occasional opportunity to dine without having to dissect the pros and cons of each dish or make small talk between mouthfuls. So I am surprised at the response of some friends who say that – while they may grab an informal lunch or breakfast on their own – they would never dream of going to a more upmarket venue for dinner à une. Some female friends worry they look like they're out on the prowl, or more embarrassingly, have been stood up. Restaurants – mostly those of the stuffier persuasion – also have traditionally been unwelcoming: waiters hover suspiciously, while owners fret over paltry one-person bills.
Not so any more, says Norman, who has opened four similar London restaurants after the success of Polpo.
"The stigma that used to be attached to dining alone has now gone and we are comfortable in our own company or with a newspaper or a novel," he tells me. "We positively encourage people to come in solo. In fact, the most common lunch party size at Spuntino is one. The interesting thing is that you nearly always end up talking to the person next to you, so dining alone can be, ironically, a very social experience."
On an evening wander round the streets of Soho, where the hyped new openings seem to cluster, it is common to see queues snaking down the streets, a mix of hipsters and post-work suits spilling out of doorways.
Even if you support the idea of scrapping reservations in theory, it's still a bit of a pain. A trip late last year to Ducksoup, another intimate Soho restaurant serving up innovative cooking in casual surroundings, saw me and my boyfriend squeezed in the doorway between two Chinese businessmen whose suits demonstrated they clearly had much more money than us and two couples whose haircuts showed they were clearly much more hip. Nevertheless, there we all waited for tables for 45 minutes, trying not to jog the record player as we jockeyed for the elbow room to raise our artisan beers to hungry mouths.
A return to Ducksoup alone last week proved an infinitely calmer experience. As pairs jostled at the door, the waiter suggested that I could be squeezed on the end of a table with two other people, although he worried that I might feel a little hidden away at the back.
Most solo diners like to eat at the bar, he confided, but today that was packed. In the end, I was found a spot in a wonderfully prominent place by the door.
As I tucked into cod with cockles and grilled fennel with saffron mayonnaise and caught up on some reading, I reflected on another boon for those of us willing to strike out alone: those annoying tapas plates meant for sharing but are never quite enough for two? Well, they are the perfect size for one.
Dos and don'ts for solo dining
Do your research. Not all no-reservations restaurants have bar areas and some do not work their way down the queue to find out group sizes. Standing alone in a queue in the rain truly does not bode well for a good evening ahead.
Don't keep looking at your phone in an apologetic manner. While there may be the temptation to give the impression you are merely waiting for tardy friends, you are deceiving no one and just look like you've been stood up.
Do bring some reading material. Unless you are a die-hard daydreamer, there is something rather disconcerting about staring into the middle distance while waiting for your food. I favour the Economist, which gives off the appropriate: "I am far too busy and clever to bother with dining companions" vibe.
Don't expect the best seat in the house. As much as you want the plush table by the window to peer out and watch the world go by, you're unlikely to get it: at the end of the day you do still look a little sad.
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