Recent research from Startle has revealed a booming interest in solo dining options – with online searches for the topic rocketing by 57%.
But at the Alex Dilling’s Hotel Café Royal in central London, those opting for a single space will have to spend twice the price for one tasting menu – racking up an eyewatering bill of £350.
The restaurant says rising prices are to blame. But what’s the deal with solo diners? Should pubs follow suite in charging double? We asked chefs and operators for their thoughts.
For the owner of the Unruly Pig, Brendan Padfield, there are two sides to the coin. Michelin restaurants tend to have far fewer covers than the average pub. They too, are facing very squeezed margins while battling economic challenges, he explained. This means that every cover counts towards survival and profit.
However, the majority of pubs are not full for lunch and dinner every day, so Padfield believed it would be an “arrogant proposition” for pubs to follow suit.
In any event, he said the heart of a pub should be its accessibility for all, and single diners should always feel welcome.
“If you turn away single diners, where will this stop?” questioned the owner of the gastropub in Bromeswell, Suffolk. Would you also turn down tables of three who take up the space on a four-cover table on a busy Saturday night, for instance? “It’s not a great message,” he added.
When dining alone, Padfield was likely to return to venues that offered him a newspaper, an extensive wine list, and, of course, a “winning smile and little chat”.
He added: “The advent of tablets means it is now so easy for single diners to read, feel less self conscious and not like ‘Billy no mates”.
Varun Khanna, head chef at the General Tarleton, Ferrensby, North Yorkshire, had no issue with solo diners. Occasionally, he dines by himself. One of his best experiences eating alone was at Prashad in Bradford, where the waiting team spent time discussing dishes with him in more detail.
Not charging a solo diner double was an easy way to improve the experience for those eating alone, said Khanna.
“If someone wants to dine solo and tables are available, why not?” he asked. “Every diner is valued whether it is a table of 10 or one.”
Kerridge’s Bar & Grill opens its arms to solo diners – of which there are around 40 each week. Head chef Nick Beardshaw put this down to the venue’s “energetic, buzzy space”, with counter-top seats in front of the rotisserie perfect for guests opting to dine alone, who can watch as their food is cooked in front of them.
Beardshaw drove the point that Alex Dilling did not have an issue with individual diners themselves, but with the added cover on a table of two he loses as a result.
Keeping customers coming back
In a small dining room that is often fully booked, this was a “straight up loss” and could have a big impact on revenue. Kerridge’s Bar & Grill, on the other hand, was a much bigger restaurant, and with table turns happening quickly, it has a great capacity for solo diners.
Communal seating arrangements such as large tables or counter-top dining can eliminate losing covers to single diners, Beardshaw added.
Anglian Country Inns (ACI) head of food Kumour Uddin believed it was a “bit farfetched” to charge solo diners double. He reasoned that it was a bit like charging the same price for kid’s meals and adult’s meals based on a cover charge.
It’s the “wrong route to go down,” he added, and it’s something Anglian Country Inns would certainly never do.
He said that solo guests should be welcomed, and the business’ coffee shop in Hitchen is in fact designed to cater for a lot of individual customers.
For Uddin, inviting someone into your restaurant should be like inviting them into your own home. What matters is creating an experience for the guests that means they’ll come time and time again.
Leigh Mac, operator at the Saddle Inn, Cheshire, was of the opinion the opinion that it’s “absolutely ridiculous and so unfair” to the solo diner. “I’d boycott the restaurant in question to be honest,” he added.
'Every diner is different'
Around 30% to 40% of the Chester-based pub’s clientele arrive alone. For Mac, it’s vital they’re welcomed from the start. He believed no one should be punished for choosing to eat alone.
Hosting nights dedicated to single diners was one way of catering to the growing trend, he suggested.
For the co-owner of the Black Bull in Sedbergh, Cumbria, creating great solo dining experiences comes down to training and being able to read the guest.
“Every solo diner is different,” said James Ratcliffe, “you just need to be conscious of that.”
For instance, he said that sitting them at a table to the side of the room so not to highlight they’re alone is often advisable, but it’s also about not hiding them away, as they need to feel part of the room and the experience.
It’s also very much about the little things for the co-owner, such as seeing if they want something to read like a paper or a magazine, or simply just engaging with them if you feel they want to.
He advised operators “not to make a fuss” about the fact the guest was alone. He said: “It’s all about reading each customer individually and making them feel as comfortable as possible so that they enjoy their own experience of your venue.”