Sunday, May 2, 2010

The flaneur's guide to dining alone

Rebecca Lynn Tan had an article today in the Sunday Times on Dinner for One. That will be the topic for today's post. Tan's wasn't a bad article, but I think I can provide more ... specific advice on dining alone.

In my youth (ok, I'm not that old), I used to travel fairly extensively as a student. Because it was somewhat difficult to find people with the same travel interests as myself, I frequently travelled alone. Still do, actually. So I learnt a few tricks on dining alone.

Dining alone in a restaurant is, for most people, an intimidating experience. "Table for one", "Yi wei" ... no matter how you say it, it's difficult. As a traveller, I started out ta-paoing from convenience stores, or eating grab-and-go street food, or stepping into a McDonald's like most less experienced travellers. Fastfood is frequently the easiest option when you are in a foreign city and you don't speak the language.

But it got old fast. So I wised up. And I picked up the courage to say "Table for one, please".

The unexpected thing is, the tricks I learnt while travelling still stand me in good stead here in Singapore. It doesn't happen often, but I occasionally dine alone in a restaurant in Singapore. As an incidental benefit, dining alone usually means looking for quieter places to eat; that's a good thing seeing as how I'm allergic to crowds.

Here then, are my tips for dining alone:

  1. First of all, in reference to Tan's article, if you have to raise your voice and repeat "Table for one" to the maitre'd, thereby announcing your solo status to everyone in the restaurant, you're not doing it right. Do what the Japanese do when dining out; indicate with your fingers how big your party is. In this case, just raise your index finger (not the middle one, no matter how tempting that is).

  2. Eat early or eat late, but do not eat when everyone else is eating. Restaurants are at their most crowded from 7pm - 9pm, with exceptions in certain countries (e.g. Spanish diners eat notoriously late). Walking into the restaurant at 6pm or at 9pm will more likely get you the seat you want as well as a more private dining experience.
  3. Fine dining, despite what Tan's article would suggest, is generally not a fine option. Fine dining establishments typically turn tables once, or not at all, per night. Turning tables is restaurant parlance for seating new diners at a table vacated by a prior group. Most diners at fine dining establishments will come in at about 7 or 8pm, and leave after 10pm. So such a restaurant will on average serve a number of customers 1.5 to 2 times their maximum seating per night. If you're a solo diner taking up a table meant for 3 or 4, and you finish sometime after 8pm (especially if you didn't abide by rule number 2), since solo diners seldom linger, it's unlikely that the restaurant will be able to accommodate a new group for your table for the rest of the night. In other words, it's lost revenue for the restaurant. And being a solo diner, it's unlikely that you ordered wine, at least by the bottle. Which is another lost revenue opportunity. They can say what they want about welcoming and making solo diners comfortable, but really, fine dining restaurants generally do NOT want solo diners. Plus, do you really want to sit down through a multicourse dinner alone? And drinking wine alone is ... well, you could either be construed as being very sad or a lush, neither one of which is very appealing.
  4. Cuisine matters. Certain kinds of cuisine are just more suitable for solo diners. Tan was right to be apprehensive about Chinese dining; it is communal and has larger portions or platters meant to be shared. While I do not doubt that Crystal Jade as mentioned in the article has single portions on its menu, still, Chinese is seldom a serious option I consider when I eat out alone. Even if there are single portions available, it's invariably a little more expensive and generally not very good value. The food was meant to be shared after all. The same goes for Thai food. In contrast, Japanese (with its bentos), Korean (think soon-dubu jigae and the like), Vietnamese (Pho, with a sider order of spring rolls or another appetizer), are generally better options for solo dining. Go for cuisines that emphasize individual plates or small portions (Spanish tapas comes to mind, although frankly, there are no good Spanish restaurants in Singapore).

  5. Now, where to eat? That goes right to the heart of the matter, doesn't it? As a diner, I look for good food at reasonable prices. As a solo diner, I ask for quietness and privacy. That may or may not be what you are looking for. If it is, then read on. If not, well, Singapore's a crowded city, so you should have no problems finding what you need. Generally, convenience implies crowds. So if you want to dine someplace quiet, you should be prepared to go a little out of the way. Choose restaurants in out of the way malls (I stay in the west, so West Coast Plaza is one of my preferred haunts. It helps that they have a Sakuraya Fish Market.). Walk out of the hubs like town centers and major MRT stations into surrounding neighborhoods where there are sometimes friendly, family-type restaurants that serve the residents in the area. Hotel restaurants are a safe, if boring and pricey alternative, and the wait staff are used to dealing with solo travellers. And don't overlook tourist destinations. Museums these days are paying greater attention to their food offerings; it would hardly do to leave visitors with a bad taste in their mouths, literally. If you're lucky, you might find a elegant quiet experience in a museum restaurant or cafe. And theatre restaurants can be a godsend for a solo diner. If you step in just after a major show has begun, you're almost certainly guaranteed a quiet private dinner. 

  6. Bring a distractor if you must, or enjoy the experience of dining alone. By distractors, I mean a magazine, a newspaper, a Kindle, or an Iphone ... but probably not a paperback or hardback book. That would look ... odd. And if you're secure enough or inquisitive enough to put aside the distractors, enjoy the experience of dining alone. Too often when we eat out, we are too busy having a conversation with friends or family that we don't appreciate the decor, the restaurant, or just the opportunity to people-watch in the restaurant. Get a seat with a good view of the restaurant, or next to a window that overlooks the street. You'll be surprised by how much you can see, or eavesdrop on.

  7. Lastly, be friendly and be an easy customer. Don't make things overly difficult for your servers. You don't have to engage the wait staff in a conversation if you don't want to, but be pleasant and gracious. And if they are wearing nametags, make a point of addressing them and thanking them by name when you are about to leave. In my experience, people always react well to that.

1 comment:

lucy said...

I don't eat often enough but when I do, I prefer to eat at places I know very well. That way, I don't need to engage in polite conversation with the wait staff if I don't want to. Also, I don't need to deliberate over long on what to eat, since I wld know the menu quite well.