REVIEWING RESTAURANTS is an intensely, relentlessly social endeavor. I need companions to help me explore the range of a menu -- and I should probably talk to them between bites.
Yet every now and then, I relish the opportunity to experience a meal without having to play host. The obvious drawback also proves to be an advantage: While I can't sample a lot of food when I dine alone, doing so allows me to better absorb a restaurant's many details, and sometimes see the venue in a different light.
In an informal experiment conducted over the course of the past few months, I ate by myself in more than a dozen restaurants, both here and on the road. With very few exceptions, I was treated exceptionally well, and I don't think it was sheer luck.
Some restaurants, it turns out, actively court lone customers. At Seasons in the Four Seasons hotel, I was offered not only a selection of magazines and news-papers, but even a laptop (!) to use during lunch service. The wine list spans some 40 choices by the half-bottle, and orders for single patrons are prepared ahead of those of larger parties, says Rajesh Radke, director of restaurants for the Georgetown hotel. The rationale: This way, single diners won't have to stare into space, with nothing to do, while others are eating. At the neighborhood-oriented Buck's Fishing & Camping , co-owner James Alefantis, himself an enthusiastic solo eater, says he goes out of his way to spend more time talking to lone patrons. He also tends to place them at the restaurant's communal table, which has direct lighting (the better to read the book or magazine they may have brought along).
Some singles are intimidated by eating alone. I'm not one of them, but I understand their reluctance, having once shown up for brunch at a popular new restaurant, requesting a table for one. "What, you couldn't find anyone to eat with you?" the host asked.
His loss: The city alone is home to more than 200,000 singles, an audience with plenty of worthy dining options. Smart restaurateurs tap into those numbers. Just ask Ashok Bajaj, the owner of Ardeo, Bardeo, the Bombay Club, the Oval Room, Rasika and 701, all in Washington. "Single diners spend more money," he reports. "They drink more, they eat more."
His competitors concur. Radke of the Four Seasons says solo guests spend about $10 more at dinner. And Alefantis of Buck's tells the story of a regular who comes in three times a week for a dinner that typically starts with a cocktail, continues with three courses and part of a bottle of wine, and ends with an after-dinner grappa.
To capture the single demographic, several years ago 701 Restaurant added "lunch at the bar" to its repertoire. Guests who opt for one of the 12 bar stools, or who sit at the adjacent, 10-seat wine bar, may order an entree and a glass of wine for $15 -- the perfect option for, say, diners from the nearby courthouses with not much time for lunch.
Food is this single diner's primary interest, but a helping of something to entertain me -- an oyster shucker, a pizza maker, a personable bartender -- is always appreciated. Not long ago, I found myself sitting front and center at the kitchen counter at Olives downtown. While I brought a newspaper to keep me company, I never read a word of it. The show unfolding before me -- flames dancing in the pizza oven, steam rising from big pasta pots, a chef coaxing pretty food from his troops -- was diversion aplenty. (A diner can even glean a few cooking tips, as in, the best way to dress a salad is to mix the greens by hand.) If I want to think about something besides lunch over lunch -- plot a trip, map out restaurant visits -- I plan to return to Cafe 15 in the Sofitel hotel, where the tables are as broad as office desks, and I can spread out my papers. The French restaurant's dessert menu is designed to be enjoyed quickly and judiciously: After entrees are cleared, a server shows up with a tray of two- or three-bite confections, priced at $2.50 each and nicely tailored to the single sweet tooth.
Bells and whistles aren't required to dine well alone. A window will do just fine, thank you. More than once, hosts have led to me tables that look out onto something lovely; keep Table 17 at 701 in mind if you like to people-watch and contemplate Washington's architecture. The best restaurants seat parties of one near something attractive and away from doors -- and other singles. Which reminds me: I've overheard some great gossip when I haven't been distracted by my own conversation. (One time, I even sat next to a group of people talking about me. Tempted as I was, I didn't correct their mangled pronunciation of my name.)
If you dress nicely and show some interest, it's amazing how restaurants respond to a solo guest. In one of my more brazen moments, I showed up at Le Bernardin, the four-star seafood restaurant in Manhattan, at 8:15 on a Friday night. Without a reservation. To her credit and my relief, the hostess didn't roll her eyes, laugh me away or give any clue that my request was unreasonable. "We don't have anything at the moment," she purred, "but why don't you take a seat in the bar, and we'll see what we can do." In less than half an hour, I landed a prime table in the center of the dining room; within moments of my being seated, a flute of champagne showed up. A secret admirer, I wondered, looking around the room? No way. The staff at Le Bernardin simply wanted to make a single patron feel welcome. "You were very patient," the maitre d' said, to explain the gracious gesture.
I didn't receive anything gratis at The Prime Rib in Washington a week later on a Friday night, but I was greeted with similar warmth at the front door. "I'm sure we can find something for you," a host said, making me feel less alone. He ushered me to a big tufted leather chair, next to a bass and piano duo, which turned out to be a great place to view the room and savor the live music, played at such a level that I could eavesdrop on nearby conversations if I cared to. Like hosts elsewhere, the one at the Prime Rib thoughtfully gave me a seat (Table 35) that was separated by a vacant table.
The oysters glistened. The steak cut like butter. The mashed potatoes reminded me of home, and the sidecar cocktail made dinner feel special. I might have been alone, but I was never lonely.
Buck's Fishing & Camping
5031 Connecticut Ave. NW
806 15th St. NW
1600 K St. NW
The Prime Rib
2020 K St. NW
2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
To chat with Tom Sietsema online, go to washingtonpost.com on Wednesdays at 11 a.m.