Cafes in Singapore are the least crowded in the mid-afternoon on a weekday, which is precisely when I time my visit. All of this is a thoroughly calculated move – perhaps I’ll stand out less if more seats are unoccupied.
I sit down and immediately open my laptop to start doing work, eager to prove that I had intended to come here alone – as if it’d be something otherwise unthinkable. A table for one? Who does that?
A lot of people do, actually. Even more so today, when solo dining has shed its stigma of being for the lonely. In fact, data shows that single cover reservations have increased by an astounding 110% over the last two years.
That said, this still doesn’t mean everyone who’s willing to dine out alone is completely comfortable with it – even if they’re perfectly at ease with their own company. Many solo diners still feel like they’re relatively more gently taken care of by service staff when alone. Why complain about good service, you might ask? But when service begins to offer what is bordering on sympathy when there should have been no reason for any in the first place, you might end up dishing out discomfort instead.
To understand how best to cater to solo diners, Ian, a floor manager at a steakhouse in the CBD, dines solo. “I realised that it’s actually quite simple. I want what any other customer in the restaurant wants: the experience.” He shrugs. “In fact, I probably want it more than other customers – I’m not here to be social or happening or any of that. The act of being here by myself means I don’t want to not come just because I haven’t got a companion. So give me that experience.”
It all sounds simple, but it’s tremendously easy for service staff to blurt out the accidental “Oh, just one?” or “Are you waiting for someone?”.
Cue awkward silence.
Point being, says Ian, you could set up your restaurant as thoughtfully as possible to cater to solo diners – bar counters, window-facing seats and what have you – but providing parties of one with a natural environment starts with training your service staff to be able to provide that hospitality.
In that sense, perhaps shedding aforementioned stigma begins with restaurant staff (perhaps even more so than customers!) embracing this way of eating.
Lead the change, says Kelvin, who frequents Todamgol, a Korean restaurant along Tanjong Pagar Road. Why that restaurant in particular along the stretch of road that’s basically Singapore’s K-town? Despite the communal element being so central in Korean cuisine, Todamgol is exceptionally accommodating to customers who choose to dine alone.
“The soups on the dinner menu are mostly meant for 2-3 people, but the lovely ajumma (madam) who runs the front kitchen will be willing to do a half-portion for me whenever she can,” he says. “I appreciate it particularly because even in Korea, food is such a social thing and it’s so common for menus to start at a two-order minimum. But she’s willing to put convention aside to make you comfortable.”
Reaching the sweet spot of accommodating your single customers, but not overdoing it, is a tough balancing act. But it’s worth it – as Ian reasons, from a business perspective, solo diners should be undoubtedly valued as much as larger parties. Not only is it safe to assume that both have similar purchasing power, the table turnover rate of solo diners are much quicker than, say, a group of ten celebrating a birthday.
Plus, solo diners don't have the distractions of a social rendezvous to shift their awareness away from the dining experience. In other words, dining out alone can be an exceptionally fulfilling experience… if you know how to make it one.
And in time, the solo diner might be back for you – perhaps this time with a companion or five.