Going it alone: Chiswick accountant Claire Press at 4Fourteen in Surry Hills. Photo: Janie Barrett
If you see an Irishman with scraggly brown hair hunched over small tasting plates at a Sydney restaurant, chances are it's Colin Fassnidge eating out by himself.
The celebrity chef is among of the growing number of diners who see no shame in enjoying a meal alone.
"It's not awkward," he says with a chuckle. "I love eating by myself. My favourites are Fish Face, Spice I Am, Sushi-e, and Berta. Though I wouldn't go to Quay on my own, that would be embarrassing."
"With smaller dishes now, it's easier to try a lot of things on your own too."
When Fassnidge established the hip Surry Hills eatery 4Fourteen two years ago, he kept solitary diners like him in mind. Now the communal bench around the buzzing open kitchen is regularly occupied by individuals happy with their own company.
"After the recession we wanted a place that wasn't too formal, we can't be fussy about who we serve," he said. "I'm seeing more solo diners now and they usually come earlier in the week. If they come in at night, it's usually a foodie."
While the restaurant industry aims to maximise "bums on seats", as Fassnidge puts it, there is no room for fretting over sacrificing space to make way for a lone diner. A few weeks ago at his two-hatted Four in Hand in Paddington, a man washed down an entree and main with a $900 bottle of wine.
The rise in the number of people living alone, and advances in technology, are increasingly removing the stigma of dining alone. Lone dwellers now account for a fifth of Sydney households, according to the latest census, and smartphones and tablets allow solo diners to stay engaged – or at least, appear like it.
"Ones used to be odd, but now they are actually kinda cool," Stevan Premutico, head of Australia's largest online bookings service Dimmi, says. "The iPad plays the role of a dining companion and the good old dining bar makes it less intimidating to eat alone."
Table for one bookings jumped 83 per cent in the past financial year, compared with 44 per cent for overall bookings, according to new data from Dimmi. Lone diners favoured the pre-dinner slot, that is, before 7pm.
Berta, Pony and Arras restaurants in the city received the highest number of table for one bookings in the state, with 4Fourteen in ninth place.
Stevan Seckold, executive chef at Flying Fish, ranked seventh, said lone diners were usually seated at tables where they could relish harbour views.
"They're probably the best guests you can have, they're there for a reason, interested in the food, rather than a group of people enjoying each other's company," he said. "We look after them."
Driving the trend overseas is Eenmaal, a pop-up restaurant in Amsterdam featuring one-person tables. Its Dutch founders have experienced such success in "breaking the very recognisable taboo" that they plan to open similar venues in London, Berlin and New York this year.
Back at 4Fourteen, 28-year-old Claire Press has seated herself at a table by the window.
"Five years ago, I wouldn’t have done it, but with technology, I can do emails and talk with friends on my phone," the accountant from Chiswick said. "Sometimes I want the little table in the corner of a cosy restaurant to do my own thing, other times it’s great to be at a vibrant, communal table with others."
Top 10 restaurants for solo dining
1. Berta Restaurant and Bar, CBD
2. Wharf Rd. Restaurant & Bar, Nowra
3. Pony Dining, The Rocks
4. Restaurant Arras, CBD
5. Chefs Gallery, CBD
6. MuMu Grill, Crows Nest
7. Flying Fish, Pyrmont
8. Baroque Bistro, CBD
9. 4Fourteen, Surry Hills
10. Boilerhouse Q Station, Manly