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An unseen problem
How to solo dine like a pro
I swear I didn’t set The Food Section’s publication schedule just so I could publish an edition on my birthday in 2023, but since it worked out that way, this feels like an opportune time to mention that all I want this year is lots and lots of new paying subscribers.
That said, what I know I’ll get is…older. As of today, I’m 47, which most dictionaries and doctors count as middle-aged. Their definition is slightly more forgiving than the one favored by most restaurant workers, who start writing off woman customers soon after they hit their 40s.
Society’s failure to see women once they reach a certain age is a well-documented phenomenon: The popular name for it is “Invisible Woman Syndrome,” and it has genuine professional consequences. But it’s also an exceptionally annoying situation when you’re hoping to get a menu or a drink.
Since I aged into invisibility around the time of the pandemic, I initially assumed service had just deteriorated industrywide to the point where patrons need to ask three times for water. But I have ample opportunity to dine alone and with other people, so I’ve disproven that hypothesis: Servers never seem to use my table as a staging area for dirty dishes unless I’m the only one sitting at it.
Admittedly, I’m not sure my observations would stand up to scientific scrutiny. For instance, when I told a server in Louisville that I had ordered a different salad than the one brought to my table, would she have barked, “Why don’t you just eat it?” if I was half of a party of two? Would a hostess in Nashville have seated me on the back patio in 41-degree weather if I had company? It’s possible! I suppose I’m not really in the mood to go back to those places to find out.
What’s galling about inferior treatment is solo guests are likely to be the best customers in a dining room. They didn’t come to the restaurant for a business meeting or a date: They came because they care about food, and the experience of enjoying it.
Obviously, the shabby treatment of middle-aged women is a problem for the hospitality industry to solve. But in the meantime, if you’re comfortable philosophically with expending your time and money on offsetting age discrimination, I’ve found the following tactics help ensure a more pleasant evening.
Call the restaurant
This tip could qualify as controversial in our current anti-calling era. I’ve lately come across the practice of recording and texting voice memos, which seems to me like an awfully convoluted way to get around leaving a voicemail message. (I told you I’m aging, right?) But the reality is lots of people don’t like phones, and many restaurants don’t even have them. Still, if you have the option—especially if a restaurant’s online reservation system is configured so that two is the smallest possible party—it never hurts to give a heads-up that you’re arriving alone.
For obvious reasons, restaurant workers’ annoyance with solo guests grows as prime time approaches. Rather than try to get a server’s already fractured attention, consider the advantages of dining at 5 p.m. (I prefer to eat around 8 p.m., so you may have to ask someone else to expound on those advantages.)
Start at the bar
Eating alone at the bar is one of my favorite pastimes, particularly if I’m armed with a good book, or seated alongside fascinating strangers who feel like chatting. But you shouldn’t be forced into a bar seat if you’d prefer a table of your own, as I often do when I want to focus on my food.
Nevertheless, paying a visit to the bar before your solitary meal is a great way to stave off the frustration that comes with being ignored by your server for 15 minutes or more, which is roughly the standard wait time. It doesn’t matter whether you order a spiritous cocktail or bottle of Mexican Coke, just so long as you’re ready with something to sip when you’re shown to your table.
Buy a bottle of wine
Heck, you don’t even have to drink it. But this is the landlubber’s version of a single supplement, designed to acknowledge and compensate for the money that the restaurant’s losing by seating one person at a two-top.
Since it’s legal in most places to take your unfinished bottle with you when you leave, a wine order is rarely a total wash, but there are nonalcoholic workarounds too: The going rate for an added caviar dollop is about $45. After all, the whole idea behind dining—whether in a group or not—is pleasure.
Have a great weekend.
One last chance to celebrate!