Safety without numbers: Solo dining shouldn't be isolated cases in restaurants

May 9, 2020

The popularity of sharing plates has spiked in recent years, making group meals increasingly fashionable, while banishing solo diners to the fringes of restaurants. Cliques of customers have merrily mingled and matched starters of bread paired with beef stew, followed by six-piece plates of buckwheat-fried chicken, then heartily roasted pork belly, in portions for princely appetites.

The current health upheaval could change that. As tables for four become the barely tolerable upper threshold, the stigma that has long dogged dining alone in the Klang Valley's modern eateries seems set to fade, at least for awhile.

"Solo dining wasn’t really a big thing before - but it might be, going forward," says Zoe Rai, owner of Bangsar's Zoe restaurant.

Many restaurateurs never meant to discriminate against individual patrons. But over the past decade, the social tide has turned against the practice of peacefully enjoying your own solitary companionship in a restaurant. Food tastes better with friends, too many people insisted. Never mind, it's the company that really matters, solo-shamers sniffed, if the food failed to satisfy them.

There are benefits to solo dining sometimes. It means you can concentrate on savouring the food, instead of chatting distractedly to keep conversations alive. It allows you the time, space and calm to reflect and recharge by yourself, away from the demands of everyone in your life. It affords the opportunity to order what you want and take however long you need to eat, without the judgment of others.

"I designed my place for solo diners," Zoe says. "I had bar counter seating, so that people who came alone could just sit there and look into the open kitchen and still feel quite engaged while being on their own."

However, table seating is much more coveted at Zoe's restaurant. When solo diners do visit, it's often purely for convenience - they might have dinner there first to avoid getting stuck in traffic on the way home, for example.

Zoe has noticed customers ordering single meals for delivery during the MCO, which could bode well for the future of solo dining. "I have customers who stay quite far - they order just one dish from me for delivery, and the transportation costs almost as much as the dish. So I won’t be surprised to get solo diners who come for just one dish and then they go back."

Even restaurants that specialise in massive meals - like Southern U.S. BBQ beef, lamb and chicken served on platters with potatoes, corn and bread - are working to become more solo-friendly.

"If you talk about Texas barbecue, it’s always been a sharing thing," says Kam Kok Fung, co-founder and pitmaster of Burnin' Pit in Desa Sri Hartamas.

"But after studying the behaviour of customers, we’ve implemented sandwiches, so that people who don’t want to eat a lot of meat can order a single sandwich and still get a taste of Texas barbecue. We’re now working on R&D for a lot of lighter menus, maybe some smaller dishes for one or two."

Some neighbourhood cafes that cater to solo diners say it's all about making them feel genuinely welcome and relaxed.

"We've always had a lot of solo diners. I think it's because they feel comfortable," says Sheila Philip of For Goodness Cakes in Bangsar. Sheila expects even more solo diners to surface, as well as tables for two, comprising couples living together.

Haerris Riani, who runs Tossed Cafe in PJ's Jaya Shopping Centre, says his venue mostly attracts working professionals - "anywhere between two to six per group" - on weekdays and families on weekends.

He says solo diners usually linger only about half an hour, except people working on their laptops, who might spend two or three hours over a meal and cup of coffee. Those individuals are made to feel equally appreciated.

"We provide free extension cords and free WiFi. When they order a food and drink, sometimes we throw in complimentary dessert as well - just a personal touch from our standpoint," Haerris says.

Haerris notes that solo diners may have to pick up the slack for businesses, as demand for crowd dining dwindles. “Some customers will continue to come, the ones who are healthy," he says. "But for the ones who tend to come in big groups, what they will do is ring up the outlet and pack up the food to bring to the office or home.”

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