Japanese ramen chain Ichiran has created a global business out of solo diners, yet many venues grunt and groan when they get a booking for one. Paul Carmichael from Momofuku Seiobo and Cutler & Co’s Samy Mir-Beghin discuss the growing market and how restaurants can cater to single diners.
A regular at Cutler & Co recalled a story to restaurant manager Samy Mir-Beghin after he attempted to book a table for one at an esteemed Melbourne establishment. “Whoever picked up the phone forgot to put him on hold, and he heard them saying, ‘Solo diners don’t make us any money’,” says Mir-Beghin. Safe to say the diner hung up and returned to Cutler & Co, where he has become the venue’s most prolific diner.
More and more Australians are shedding the ‘loner’ stigma and dining out solo according to research from Dimmi. The company found there has been a 27 per cent increase across Australia in unaccompanied eaters in the past year, with 40 per cent of bookings in New South Wales and 32 per cent in Victoria made by single diners.
Birds of a feather
Momofuku Seiobo has been hailed as one of Australia’s best restaurants for solo diners, and it’s easy to see why. Like many chefs, Paul Carmichael is an avid solo diner himself and understands what single diners are looking for when they go out to eat. “When I have a solo diner in, I tend to give a little bit more attention because I know what it’s like to be alone,” he says. “Eating out is communal and family oriented, so when someone comes in by themselves, I like to show a little extra love.”
Chef Andrew McConnell kept solo diners front of mind during Cutler & Co’s recent refurbishment. “We have a couple of tables in the dining room that Andrew specifically wanted for solo diners,” says Mir-Beghin.
“There’s a table against the window where you can see the kitchen and he likes to serve food to the guest when he’s here. There’s a booth close to the kitchen which we usually offer to single diners as well.”
Although most diners come armed with a smartphone, Cutler & Co also provides solo diners with reading material if they want a distraction. “We offer books or a newspaper, but most people are all about their iPhone or iPad,” says Mir-Beghin.
Raising the bar
Location is key when it comes to seating solo diners, with many preferring to sit at the bar rather than a table in between couples and groups. Both Cutler & Co and Momofuku opt to seat solo diners at the bar to ensure they’re close to chefs and the service team to encourage conversation.
“People can come in without a booking and sit at the front bar, which is much more dynamic,” says Mir-Beghin. “They’re facing the kitchen and don’t feel like everyone is looking at them in the dining room.”
Cutler & Co’s bar option is ideal for customers who may not want to do the tasting menu but still enjoy a few dishes. “You can just have a main course or a bit of cheese, which is suitable for people who are in the area and want to try us out,” says Mir-Beghin.
Momofuku has two bars in the restaurant, one offering a bar menu and the other, the degustation. But there are a handful of prime positions at the main bar for solo diners.
“We never seat a solo at a table unless they request it,” says Carmichael. “Generally, they sit at the main bar where there’s a lot going on. There are two particular spots where chefs are always standing, so we tend to put solo diners there so there is room for interaction with a chef. People ask questions all the time and that’s part of an open kitchen. There’s less than a metre between you and the diner and it’s designed to be like that. You can talk to the guest and they can talk to you.”
Bar seats also allow chefs and the service team to keep an eye on a diner and in turn tailor the dining experience to the customer’s mood. “We tend to cook at their pace, so if they eat quickly, we cook quickly, and if they want to chill on their iPad, we will cook slower,” says Carmichael.
Reading between the lines
There are two types of solo diners — those who are keen to participate and others who just want to keep to themselves, and it’s up to the service team to gauge which category they fall under.
While most solo diners will come just for the food, good service also plays a critical role that shouldn’t be overestimated. Many solo diners will visit a venue numerous times if a restaurant is able to provide a comfortable experience when it comes to dining alone. “I had a chat with a gentleman, and for him, it’s 40 per cent food and 60 per cent service,” says Mir-Beghin.
“We recently had three solo diners in a row come in. Some customers want interaction and others don’t want to be bothered. If it’s a businessman who just wants to read a book, we let them cruise through the night or if someone wants to know everything about food and wine, we are more than happy to talk — we adjust accordingly,” says Mir-Beghin.
Dining solo doesn’t have to be lonely, and Carmichael has noticed plenty of solo diners bond over a shared experience. “It depends on the night, but you find some people interact with each other even if they’re not in the same group,” he says. “There are some nights where two solos will become fast friends sitting next to each other. If a person is super into being here and wants to experience the entire restaurant, then we dive in and explain as much as they want to know.”
On the flip side, Carmichael also makes the point that some people want great service, but don’t necessarily need attention. Catering to a solo diner could be as simple as offering a recommendation, maintaining a positive attitude during service or even offering a glass of wine on the house.
Splitting courses is not the norm at every venue, but having the option entices solo diners to try a range of dishes rather than sticking to one. Cutler & Co offers half courses for all dishes on the menu and can also create a bespoke experience.
“You can order split courses or a half portion for any dish,” says Mir-Beghin. “If they want the 1.5kg rib-eye they can have it to themselves. One time we had a Brazilian gentleman eat the whole rib-eye, which was impressive. I wanted to give him a dessert, but he didn’t want any.”
Carmichael has noticed repeat solo diners come in every three to four months, and uses the opportunity to change up the menu and create a different experience from the last. “A big goal of mine for repeat customers is to change up the menu for them,” he says. “So if we know you’re coming, we will try to change it up. Generally we will go ahead and do it — unless they ask about a particular dish which we will make if it’s on the menu.”
The case for solo diners is a strong one. There’s a clear trend rising of people who are no longer afraid to dine alone, which is a plus for all venues. As Carmichael says, “If you look at it in a different light, everyone is eating solo”.
The article originally appeared in Hospitality‘s April issue. Subscribe here.