The single female-diner syndrome

New York restaurateur tackles stigma one glass of bubbly at a time
A table for one
Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

Is the solo female diner still such a brave anomaly that her pluck needs to be rewarded—even celebrated—with a complimentary glass of bubbly? Legendary New York City restaurateur Keith McNally thinks so, as I learned recently when dining alone at his restaurant Balthazar. I’d approached the hostess of the popular Soho brasserie one weeknight with the standard solo-diner plea: “It’s just me. Do you have room at the bar?” They could do better than that, she said, leading me to a table for two that wasn’t in Siberia. I was so shocked I didn’t tell her I actually like dining at the bar.

Once seated on a banquette though, I enjoyed the civility and the view. Service was stellar. After the main course, the waiter asked if I’d like a glass of champagne, on the house. They offer it to all women dining alone, she explained, a tradition McNally started because he didn’t like how solo female diners can be treated.

I felt torn. I like champagne, and generous gestures. But I also felt suddenly foisted into a sad cliché that needed to be rewarded with alcoholic combat pay—Bridget Jones out for steak frites, someone who needed to get back to her cats. What about single male diners, I wondered. Do they get free booze? Then I smartened up and said “yes” to the gratis wine, which was lovely. (And, no, there was no attempt to upsell dessert with it.)

Needless to say, McNally’s femme-friendly gesture isn’t bankrupting him. Two per cent of diners at his seven restaurants are singletons; fewer than one per cent are women, he said in an email. He began the champagne tradition shortly after Balthazar opened in 1997; he didn’t like how women dining alone were apologetic about asking for a table “for one.” Often they would suggest the bar in order not to “take up a table for two,” he says. He does it at all of his locations, “to send the message that the restaurant actually likes, even encourages, women to dine alone.” The response is “mostly pleasurable surprise,” McNally says, “But it’s occasionally bewilderment; the last thing diners expect is to be encouraged to eat alone as it obviously reduces business. But I like it for that very reason.”

Not only women experience singleton stigma, of course. Singles may be the fastest growing demographic but in terms of dining out beyond the food court, little has changed since Steve Martin’s 1984 movie The Lonely Guy: Martin walks into a restaurant alone, and a spotlight suddenly appears that follows him to his table. The current trend to communal tables can make the solo dining experience even more amplified, notes Sandy Hamilton, the general manager at Salt Tasting Room in Vancouver. “I’d never seat a single between two parties of four,” he says. Andrew Kremulec, a waiter at a high-end Toronto restaurant who likes to dine alone, sees it from both sides. “An unaccompanied person in the midst of a crowded restaurant is viewed askance, like a surveillance camera eavesdropping on every word and deed.” Krempulec always takes a book with him, “not only to prevent the forlorn spectacle of staring sadly off into space, but to put surrounding diners at ease. Burying one’s nose in a book renders the single diner invisible and defuses the threat.”

For female diners, additionally burdened by a bad-tipper rep, the alienation is more pronounced—and analyzed. Magazine articles offer strategies to minimize exposure: take a prop, sit at the bar, dine early. Women often have different needs, says Alison Fryer, manager of Toronto’s Cookbook Store. “A lot of women like to see the room but not be seen themselves.” McNally believes the stigma surrounding women dining alone is less than when he started in the industry 30 years ago, but it still exists. “To a small degree it can be a negative perception.” Beth Whitman, the Seattle-based author of Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo, agrees. She recalls visiting Toronto on business a few years ago and going to a fancy restaurant. “I told the maître d’, ‘It’s just me,’ ” she recalls. “And he said, “ ‘Only you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, just me.’ And he said: ‘So, one person?’ It went on and on.” She laughs about it now. The solo female diner remains “a definite minority of an already curious minority,” says Krempulec. He recalls one customer, a woman he guesses was in her sixties, who’d arranged to have her dessert delivered with “Happy Birthday” written in chocolate on the plate and no fanfare. “To this day, I still cannot figure out whether the gesture was in-your-face-world triumphant or a prelude to suicide,” he says.

But you have wonder why, more than 50 years after M.F.K. Fisher rhapsodized about the pleasures of dining alone, even devoting a chapter to it in The Gastronomical Me, the plight of the solo female diner remains entrenched. A recent article on read like ’70s feminine-hygiene ads in its discussion of “the embarrassment and awkwardness” of female business travellers dining alone. One woman, Rochelle Peachey, summed up her insecurity: “When I walk into a restaurant or bar alone, I feel others see me as either a woman out to pick up men or a sad, lonely spinster.” Peachey, who runs a dating website, once even pretended to be talking on her cellphone so as to seem she had friends who liked her; when it started ringing mid-conversation, she was mortified.

The spectre of dining alone can transform the most confident, successful woman into Miss Havisham. One corporate powerhouse, who asked not to be named, says she skips meals rather than eat alone when travelling. Nancy Vonk, co-founder of Swim, a Toronto leadership training firm, has no problem dining alone at casual places where she can read her iPad, she says: “But I’d never eat alone in a ‘real’ restaurant. Not only would I feel paranoid about the judgment of others, I would be unbelievably bored. It would be inappropriate to be on an iPad or to be reading, or God forbid, talking on the cell.” When travelling, Vonk loves ordering room service, “sadly, the most expensive way to consume food of any kind.”

Nor does the connected generation show great comfort in dining alone, says Sarah Lyons, general manager of Toronto’s Crush Wine Bar. “Most women in their mid to late 20s would never, ever sit alone at a table. They’d be bored to death, or feel like a loser.”

A new website, Invite For a Bite—billed as “the safe, friendly way for women to meet and eat”— is capitalizing on the last bastion of upscale sexism by offering a platonic match-making service for female diners, evidently confident most women would prefer to make strained small talk with a random stranger than eat by themselves.

Paradoxically, the pronounced solitude that inspires terror can be a pleasure, an escape from having to make conversation, a chance to people-watch, to enjoy the moment. “I find it very empowering to dine out alone,” says Toronto food writer Marion Kane. “I go out for a certain dish I really like, and I don’t feel the need to share the experience. It’s healing.” Kane’s point echoes one recently made by psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle in the New York Times. She wrote of the need to unplug and be alone in a culture constantly connected technologically, even when dining with others in a restaurant: “In our rush to connect, we flee from solitude, our ability to be separate and gather ourselves.”

Given the retrograde stigma, women who dine alone see it as a defiant, even liberating, gesture. Janet Beed, the president and CEO of Markham Stouffville Hospital in Markham, Ont., says she made a conscious decision about dining alone years ago when she travelled constantly as a management consultant. “I asked myself, was I going to sit in my hotel room like a social pariah or go out and eat a nice meal in a lovely environment? And I decided the ‘social pariah’ label was mine, not society’s.” Rounding up companions didn’t interest her, Beed says. “You can always find someone to eat with, but it’s not always enjoyable.”

She analyzed what kind of restaurant appealed and where she was most comfortable, experimenting with out-of-the-way tables, tables for two and sitting at the bar. As most singletons do, she prefers the bar: “The bartender keeps an eye out for you and makes sure you won’t be disturbed.”

Beed takes a book or work with her but rarely turns to it. “I prefer watching the crowd, or chatting,” she says. She dines out alone when home in Toronto as well. “Sometimes I don’t feel like cooking,” she says. “A guy doesn’t think, ‘I should cook.’ ” She likes the freedom of dining alone, she says. But more than that, she says she likes “fighting a stereotype.”