Using Restaurant Week to Practice Dining Solo

by Gray Cargill on April 29, 2011

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Vermont Restaurant Week starts today. From today until May 5, foodies around Vermont can take advantage of prix-fixe menus at special prices in restaurants around the region. This is only Vermont’s second year doing this, but it’s a phenomenon that’s been hosted in a number of cities around the US for years now. Restaurant Week is a great opportunity to take yourself out to eat. That’s right, I’m talking about solo dining.

I know, nothing has the potential to strike fear in the hearts of otherwise confident human beings more than the prospect of having to dine alone. But if you’re going to travel solo, you will eventually need to learn to eat alone in restaurants.  To me, Restaurant Week is the perfect opportunity to practice. Why? Two reasons:

Beef Satay appetizer

Beef Satay appetizer

  1. Restaurant Week is an event that benefits a worthy cause. (In Vermont, it’s the Vermont Food Bank.) So here’s your opportunity to do good while also practicing your solo dining skills. If you feel at all awkward and uncomfortable during your meal, just remind yourself you’re doing it for charity.
  2. The prices represent a discount over what you would normally pay. You’re saving money on the experience!

If you’ve never  “done” a Restaurant Week before, here’s how it works:

  • Go to the Restaurant Week website to see the listing of participating restaurants and review their menus. Prix-fixe menus generally include an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert, and most restaurants will offer you two to three choices in each category. The total cost is less than what it would normally cost you to purchase those dishes separately at the restaurant.
  • Choose the one(s) that look good to you. Make a reservation for the appropriate mealtime (lunch or dinner) sometime during Restaurant Week.
  • Show up at the restaurant at the preappointed time and enjoy your meal.
  • Don’t forget to tip your server well.
Cantonese Lobster

Yum!

Because Restaurant Week is a fundraiser, restaurants really want people to turn out. You shouldn’t feel shy about making a reservation for one. Sometimes we solo diners psych ourselves out of dining alone because we assume the restaurants aren’t interested in our business. Usually, this is not true.

Sue Bette, owner of Burlington’s Bluebird Tavern, used to be a frequent solo diner herself. “When I was a college coach I was on the road quite a bit and had to dine solo quite often, and I have to say it did take some time getting used to! What really made my solo dining experience fun was finding little gems on the road, small independent restaurants that provided a great experience and regional foods to enjoy.”

“At Bluebird Tavern we are always excited to serve solo diners, folks who have joined us either because they are looking for a great experience and to take some time for themselves or may be in the area for business travel.”

She recommends the tavern bar for solo diners, for the personal attention and the TVs playing regional sports, but adds that the dining room also has “cozy nooks for solo-diners to relax and enjoy a beautifully prepared, locally sourced meal.”

Jed Davis, co-owner of the Farmhouse Tap & Grill, says his restaurant sees a fair amount of solo diners, too–“generally people here on business from out of town. Most solo diners seem to enjoy dining at our bar, although we are certainly happy to accommodate single diners at tables.”

Per Davis, communal dining is “something we flirt with on occasion at the Farmhouse,” with communal tables in the outdoor beer garden, and a long communal table in the downstairs parlor space. He credits the “social dining” trend for this. “People go out to dinner to socialize, whether by themselves or with others.”

Still not sure you’d be comfortable dining alone? Here are some tips that might help make it easier:

  • If you’re feeling social, sit at a bar or counter or try a communal table if the restaurant has one. This way you can interact with others, including the bartender/server and other customers.  At the very least, there is usually a TV behind the bar you can watch while you eat.
  • Secure a table in a prime people-watching location, like next to a window or at an outdoor table.
  • Try dining in a restaurant with live entertainment, like a jazz trio.
  • Bring something to keep yourself occupied while waiting for your food. I usually bring a journal to write in, but some people read a book or magazine. You can use your cell phone for texting or surfing the web (but not for calls; no one wants to hear you talking on your cell phone in the restaurant). No matter which distraction I use, I give my servers my full attention whenever they come around.

So check your nearest city–or a city you hope to visit in the future–to see if it has a Restaurant Week. If you’re lucky, in addition to prix-fixe menus, there will be other fun food-related events you can attend (a good way to meet locals). Vermont has several, including a week-long screening of the classic 1996 Stanley Tucci-Tony Shalhoub restaurant movie, Big Night, at the Palace 9. The event that looks like the most fun to me? The Sangria Smackdown at Red Square, where you can sample and judge five different sangria recipes by local mixologists. Yum!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go peruse menus and figure out where I would like to take myself out to eat this coming week.

Gray May 12, 2011 at 6:01 am

@Frances – Yes, and oftentimes, that solo meal is the only time during the day you have to really stop and think. It can be a relief to slow down and not have to interact with anyone for a little while.
@oliver – You do get used to it, and sometimes, it can even be fun. I know I focus much more on the food, flavors, etc. when I dine alone.

oliver May 12, 2011 at 12:40 am

nice post, i used to feel very awkward eating alone in a restaurant earlier, that was when i moved to a new city for work but eventually you get used to it

Frances May 5, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Our Restaurant week is in August/September. I didn’t really know how it worked last year but I will definitely be participating this year. While eating solo is a little weird, once you get used to it, it is actually fun and you get some time to yourself to think.

Gray Cargill May 1, 2011 at 8:30 pm

I love hearing about people who are married and still dine out alone sometimes, Tracy. Way to rock your independence!

Tracy Antonioli May 1, 2011 at 12:47 pm

I love this post! I’ve been giving multiple people advice on solo travel (and have directed each of them to your blog, of course) and the one thing that always comes up is the dining aspect. My advice for solo dining is to practice at home–it’s the best way to avoid sitting in a hotel room nibbling a crummy sandwich every night of a solo journey. I’ve been dining out by myself since before I got married, and continue to do so to this day, even when I’m at home.

Oh–and I LOVE restaurant weeks!

Gray April 30, 2011 at 10:00 am

@Andrea – Hey, you can still eat out alone without your husband. Many do. It’s a treat to themselves. 🙂

@Christine- It’s the fear of how others perceive you. Like somehow, if you’re eating alone in a restaurant, it means you have no one else to eat with–no friends, no family. Which of course, isn’t true, and other diners probably aren’t thinking diddly squat about you, but that’s the fear. I like waitresses like you! I had a good one last night. She was really sweet.

@Alouise – Right! Those are great ideas too. So many people go to coffee shops alone, that’s a great place to ease into it.

Alouise April 29, 2011 at 11:21 pm

Great tips for solo dining. I especially love reading the owner’s comments on solo diners. Restaurant week sounds like a great idea for solo dining. But I think if people are intimidated by dining solo they can try to easing into it. Go for coffee first, or a quick lunch, and soon dining solo won’t seem intimidating. Solo dining can be a lot of fun, I always bring a notebook with me.

Christine April 29, 2011 at 10:53 pm

I’ve never really gotten why people are so scared to dine alone–everybody eats! Either way, I always keep a book or magazine on me when I’m traveling or using public transportation, so I usually just pass the waiting time reading. And as a waitress, I always try to be extra nice to solo diners!

Andrea April 29, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Love these tips for dining out alone. Before I got married it took me years to work up to being able to sit by myself in a restaurant without a book but I finally got there. And then I met my husband – oh well! =)

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