February 11, 2009

The Industry Standard

Supper and the single diner

This week, a member of the LouisvilleHotBytes.com forum reported that she had been dining out alone early in the evening, and she’d been told at the host’s stand that certain tables were reserved, but she might be accommodated at one if she could finish before the reservation party arrived. It appeared that she was offended by this response and sought commiseration from the dining community.

Well, I did sympathize. I used to be a traveling saleswoman, and my territory covered most states east of the Mississippi, so I have had my share of dining out alone. I suspect most of us sometimes-single diners share the experience of having been shuffled off to a poorly lighted or badly placed table, or seated at a tall bar stool uncomfortable for such single-diner activities as reading or paperwork. So it’s natural to revert to defensive mode when inquiring about being seated alone at a table in a popular restaurant.

However, since I’ve now had some experience as a restaurant employee, I could tell this wasn’t the typical single-diner blow-off. It seemed the host tried to provide the diner with as many seating choices as possible.

Rather than simply saying “all our tables are booked for later in the evening — would you care to eat in the bar?,” a good host will first try to accommodate the guest’s request for a table seating for one. Now, if a four-top shows up without a reservation at 5 p.m., you’re not going to try to seat them at a reserved table that needs to be turned, cleaned and re-set by 6 p.m. There’s no way to seat both parties comfortably without rushing one or delaying the other. 

But sometimes single diners know they are likely to finish quickly — perhaps because they are uncomfortable dining alone, or perhaps simply because there’ll be no table conversation to prolong their meal. Other singles might know that they’re likely to become engrossed in their book or wine-tasting notes and occupy the table for 90 minutes or more (which is completely their prerogative once they’ve been seated). The host doesn’t have any way of knowing without asking.

The host in this case did the right thing by asking the guest if she thought she’d need the table beyond the time of the next reservation. Properly trained staff at good restaurants know that it’s a myth that single diners tip poorly (on the contrary, they often tip spectacularly well out of a sense of needing to make up for being a party of one). They also know that every one-top is a potential repeat reference, since single diners who are treated like royalty tend to tell everyone they know about their good experience.

In the end, the best way for a single diner to ensure getting decent, unrushed service is to call ahead and make a reservation for one. And if you want a table rather than a barstool, let them know in advance — then there’ll be no need for guesswork on either side of the host’s stand.

 Marsha Lynch, a graduate of Sullivan University, has worked at many of Louisville’s independent restaurants, including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s and L&N Wine Bar and Bistro. She is now the pastry chef at Café Lou Lou.