Sit down as a solo diner at Sydney's Firedoor and you might score a surprise guest: a goldfish. For owner-chef Lennox Hastie, giving someone a temporary pet for the night is his way of welcoming people who are eating by themselves.
"You get some funny reactions when you put a fish down. People go, 'Did I order that?'," he says. The pet appears in a large jar and is presented after guests enjoy their first drink. Named Ember, the Siamese fighting fish's red flames aptly evoke the open kitchen's hot coals, sparks and wood-fired warmth.
Of course, Ember isn't automatically every lone diner's plus one for the night. "It's not necessarily appropriate for everyone," says Hastie. Good service is about tailoring the situation to each guest; for people keen to work, they're given the Wi-Fi password and "they can happily download their emails and have a piece of grilled fish and a glass of wine and be extremely happy".
But for patrons open to sticking around for hours, Ember is an apt companion. "The only thing is nowadays we get so many single diners, but [there's] only one fish!" says Hastie. "Sometimes we'll put the fish between them, and it often sparks conversation between the two diners."
Years ago, eating alone was pretty uncommon. "If you were a solo diner, you were a bit of a weirdo or you were a food critic. That's no longer the case," he says.
Some restaurants might prefer to court larger, big-spending groups, but Hastie welcomes this trend.
A lot of places consider it within their design now.Chris Handel
"It's actually a huge compliment for myself as a chef and restaurant owner when someone comes and eats on their own."
Solo diners are purposely coming to your venue for your food – not because friends dragged them there. And mates aren't always essential to enjoying a meal.
"People aren't embarrassed to eat out on their own these days," says Jared Chapman, managing director of Dimmi. The online booking site's statistics reflect this: over the last year, solo reservations have risen 27 per cent.
Typically, lone diners like eating early: 6pm-7pm is the most popular timeslot. Most people go out for steak when eating alone, followed by modern Australian and Japanese cuisines. And Dimmi's data shows that Queensland scored the biggest bump in solo guests, while NSW is home to the most single-person bookings.
"Many restaurants are making it easier [to dine alone] by offering seating at the bar or overlooking the kitchen, creating tailored menus or running special offers that encourage solo diners to eat out rather than order takeaway," says Chapman.
Just as styles of solo dining are wide-ranging, so are the types of patrons who go it alone. To assume that such dining is a mode of last resort, only enacted by losers unable to convince friends to eat out with them is an outdated stereotype.
"There is not a typical demographic we see for solo diners," says Billy Peele, general manager at New York's Eleven Madison Park. "They range from young cooks wanting to experience our restaurant to people who have been dining out alone for many years."
At Sydney's Momofuku Seiobo, lone guests tend to be travellers or businesspeople. At Adelaide's Africola, it's mainly young women who dine alone.
"[They're] taking themselves out on a date, wanting to impress nobody but themselves – I love that!" says restaurant manager Nikki Friedli. "As a solo diner, you can be whoever and whatever you like."
That was the case in London, when Jeremy Courmadias worked at a restaurant where one guest would regularly (and memorably) dine by herself. "She'd sit down at about 11.30 at night. She'd order six to eight courses on her own. She liked it really slowly paced," he says. "The whole restaurant would be empty and we'd all be there waiting and looking after her right until the early hours of the morning."
It was a true test of patience, but it's a sign of how dedicated staff can be when serving single guests.
As general manager of Fink Group (which co-owns Firedoor), Courmadias embraces parties of one. It's why he came up with the idea of offering Ember as company to lone diners. For him, service for one is about personalising everything: from changing portions to suit a sole guest to adjusting the pacing of dishes.
"Whereas you might usually allow a 10 to 15-minute break between courses, that can be a very long time when you're dining on your own."
He thinks the rise of single diners can be attributed to the advent of bar dining. Plus, hospitality workers eagerly embracing – and practising – this way of eating also helps.
Easily scoring a seat in a busy restaurant when you're unaccompanied is also another good reason to dine alone.
"I had that experience the other day at a very busy ramen restaurant in Melbourne. [There were] probably 30 people outside: I walked in and I sat down straight away."
Ben Sears, who runs Sydney's Paper Bird with partner Eun Hee An, "used to be a habitual solo diner". When he was single, he'd hit the world's top restaurants (Ryugin, Narisawa, Momofuku Ko) by himself.
"I don't think it's uncommon for chefs. And it's a lot more common overseas: I think Alinea [in Chicago] has a specific table they book just for solo diners."
Recently, he introduced a counter menu for one in Paper Bird's bar area. It's inspired by Japan's counter meals: affordable, fast and filling. Each set is $19 and comes with pickles, rice, miso soup and other sides.
It's not surprising that Japan is an inspiration for Sears – it's famous for its solo-friendly hospitality. There are character cafes that let you dine with a popular character (like Hello Kitty) and apps that project a virtual companion while you eat. There are also fast-service ramen and soba joints around train stations: pay at a vending machine, pick up a ticket and you're served steaming noodles soon after. Then there's Ichiran, famous for presenting ramen in private booths for one.
"There's a bamboo curtain drawn between you and the kitchen, so there's no chef or waitstaff watching you eat," says Helen Yee, who runs the Grab Your Fork food blog. "It's just you and the bowl of ramen."
It's another upside of eating alone: getting to bask in the experience, without interruption or intrusion.
Yee had a similar experience at Adelaide's Restaurant Orana. "This was the first time I'd ever eaten a degustation as a party of one, but because I took photos of every dish and was writing down notes – so many new native ingredients! – I was reasonably occupied most of the time," she says. "I was also heartened to see another solo diner walk in about five minutes after me!"
At Adelaide's Africola, the kitchen is open, loud and rowdy. It's an atmosphere that welcomes single guests. "You become a part of it in Africola," says Friedli.
The restaurant manager is the Good Food Guide 2018 Citi Service Excellence Award winner – and her personalised approach to solo diners proves why she deserved the title. "I like to hone in on what it is they're interested in. If it's wine, we might do some side by sides or have a mini blind tasting; or if it's spirits, maybe we'll have a sneaky shot and talk about whisky. Sometimes it can just be something as simple as being able to ramp up the conversation from general small talk to things with some more weight, if they feel like it. Sometimes, solo diners do just want to be that: solo. The best thing you can do is make them comfortable by being the perfect amount of attentive so that you're almost invisible and they can have their down time."
At Sydney's Momofuku Seiobo, lone patrons are also warmly accommodated.
"Because it's counter seating, you feel part of the action and not isolated in a corner of the restaurant at a table by yourself," says restaurant manager Kylie Javier Ashton. Single guests are often placed in the section overseen by pastry chef Johnny Fan. Not only is he a "wonderful host", guests can also watch him prepare the pumpkin pie and the Guinness and molasses cake before enjoying them at the meal's conclusion.
Dining solo often sparks acts of generosity. At Eleven Madison Park, Peele recalls helping someone overcome his aversion to lavender by going all out on the flower: "We scented the hand towels, made a lavender cocktail and even made lavender candles for him. He now loves it."
Good Food restaurant critic Terry Durack was once inspired to send a glass of Chateau Coutet sauternes to a lone diner as a gift. "He raised it in a toast to us," Durack says. "He stopped by the table and said 'Thank-you, you have restored my faith in human nature'."
The fact is, kindness rules with solo dining. "When people come in by themselves, we really spoil them," says Chris Handel, general manager of Andrew McConnell's Melbourne restaurants (which include Cumulus Inc and Supernormal). "Not just in terms of giving them stuff for free, but with time and recommendations, to offering them half serves of anything that we can do as a half serve," he says. "If they're asking lots of questions about something, we might go, 'OK, do you want to look at the whole fish? Do you want to look at how we ferment things?'" A show-and-tell with blue mackerel or lovage is not out of the question, if guests are up for it.
Solo dining has become such a fixture that "a lot of places are considering it within restaurant design now: where are our singles going to sit?", says Handel. "And that goes for every level, whether it's fine dining or upper end or more casual."
And with social media, dining solo means you're not truly alone: it's still a shared experience that triggers comments and reactions. Treating yourself to a meal out no longer has to be an event (although perhaps the guest appearance of a goldfish makes it one). "Eating great food can be the everyday fabric of what we do," says Hastie.
Tips for solo dining
■ Intimidated by solo dining? Helen Yee recommends eating at the bar. It's a great way to blend in, chat with nearby guests and get a front-row view of dishes being plated or drinks getting assembled.
■ Not keen on the bar? No problems. Point Leo Estate's Phil Wood says at Eleven Bridge, staff would place solo diners in a larger group at a central table (instead of the bar) and ramp up the service.
■ Enjoy indulging yourself. "It's a few hours of zero compromise," says Friedli. Solo dining means you can do as you please. "And you never have to share a dessert."
■ Take advantage of restaurants with bonus features. "We've got video games now at Supernormal, and sometimes you have to pull people off Street Fighter II to come and have their dish, because it's landed on their table," says Chris Handel.
■ Need a distraction? Venues have plenty of reading material: Firedoor offers its cookbook, Momofuku Seiobo provides copies of Lucky Peach, Cumulus Inc has a subscription to Noble Rot, while Supernormal's library covers Japanese architecture and more.
■ A lively restaurant ensures solo dining is not a dull experience. Try places like Sydney's Fred's, where lamb is cooked on a string as it twirls in front of a fireplace and persimmon pudding with brandy flambe was recently on the menu.
■ Don't forget, staff can be very accommodating with portion sizes. Half serves are available at Andrew McConnell's restaurants and Lucas Group's Chin Chin. "Our wine list has super flexibility, everything is available by the glass, half bottle, and full bottle, and we're always open to changing things up," says Nikki Friedli.
■ And engaging with personnel can make a big difference. "By asking your waiter the right questions and opening up as solo diner, you'll be amazed the kinds of magic that can happen for you," Friedli says.