As a London restaurant faces criticism for charging solo diners double, Liam Collens shares his take on the topic.
Solo dining is one of life’s great pleasures. Sneaking out of the house for the quiet respite that comes with someone else’s cooking, clearing away and then washing everything up. I love my own company, and we seldom disagree.
Other diners lean in and mumble “Oh look, he’s eating alone” in hushed, pitying tones. “Yes, I know, isn’t it marvellous!”, I bark back, before wiping my mouth, paying the bill and waddling down the road, all Cheshire cat grinning.
The unbridled joy of solo dining stems from years of business travel. I dodged flaccid restaurants in corporate hotels; the ones with stock art-clad walls and a Jedi-like aptitude for beige. I slurped noodles alone in Kuala Lumpur, waded solo through thought-provoking tasting menus in Bangkok and stumbled unaccompanied upon my favourite Venetian cicchetti bar in Cannaregio. Eat, pay, love.
The tax on solo diners hit the news when Alex Dilling of Hotel Café Royal in London (two MICHELIN stars) introduced a two-times minimum spend for solo diners. This means the smallest, five-course tasting menu is now at least £330 for solo diners to experience with a side plate of the cold shoulder. You’ll find me at Brutto enjoying free drinks instead (a Bib Gourmand to rescue).
Now one of life’s remaining pleasures is under threat. Increasingly, restaurants, especially fine dining restaurants – especially the toe-curlingly expensive, multi-MICHELIN-starred, World 50-something-listed restaurants – exact a slow-moving coup on solo diners, as if we are the scourge of the Earth, which is not fair; for me, screaming children take the Restaurant Villain trophy every time.
Alchemist in Copenhagen does not allow solo dining as an option on its website — or any bookings in odd numbers (two MICHELIN stars, World’s No 5). The Ledbury’s MICHELIN booking system refuses solo diner bookings; a grovelling email is required (two MICHELIN stars). Ditto for Jordnaer (checks notes, two MICHELIN stars and World’s No 57). A blonde-dyed server’s jocund announcement at Dubai’s Goldfish Sushi and Yakitori told me they do not seat solo diners, but they would make an exception for me just before skipping to my table (Bib Gourmand).
Now, I know the hospitality business is in a bind. Solo diners in fancy restaurants are usually big spenders, gastro-tourists and whatnot (Iike me). We take up tables that often accommodate four times our number, resulting in a loss of opportunity for restaurants. I understand, but I do not have to accept villainising the customer as the solution.
This latest tax on solo diners is worrying, not least of all, because more run-of-the-mill places may follow; those places where most of us go most of the time.
Solo diners are not faceless profit-blockers. Solo dining offers moments of liberation for parents and spouses who just need time to themselves. The elderly who, for fleeting moments, enjoy the company of others when children and grandchildren are busy. The same elderly diners who slide a hand across the table inside a former loved one’s favourite restaurant. We are new Dubai residents going out hoping to make new friends (this too was me once). We are single people open to meeting a partner. It creates mental health breaks from life’s demands. It offers salvation for people escaping children, parents or their outlaws (“outlaws” are like in-laws, but the bad kind).
Self-evident, alternate solutions are preferred to doubling my meal. Instead, cap my time to an hour max. Many restaurants mandate table turnaround times. Offer flexible bar seating (see Dubai’s Fusions Ceviche or BOCA). Create special faster-turn-around menus. We too need to be in other places. Encourage solo diners during quieter off-peak or midweek hours. Noma, a most-lauded and worshipped temple to fermentation, vegetables and reindeer skull starters, offers communal tables for solo diners to congregate (three Michelin stars, Best of the Best). It sounds like fine dining speed dating, with juice pairings.
We solo diners are the intrepid scouts that return with friends. We recommend your restaurant to others. We do not want to stand in your way, but taxing us is spectacularly unimaginative, if not an own goal.