The dining room was quiet at 6 p.m. Almost too quiet, which isn't something you necessarily want when you're eating alone, as I did at the cozy La Chaumiere in Georgetown after OpenTable recently named it one of the top restaurants in the country for solo diners.
OpenTable’s data shows a 62 percent increase in reservations for solo diners over the past two years, representing the site’s fastest growing party size during that time period. This despite the fact that, for most visitors to the site, OpenTable's default party size is two.
So what's going on here?
First, look at demographics, says Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist who is the author of "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After." There are more single people doing everything -- buying houses, traveling, dining out -- and as people dine out more by themselves, others see them and are emboldened to do it, too. "It's a self-perpetuating cycle," DePaulo said.
And it's not just singles: Couples are less "enmeshed" these days, De Paulo added, meaning they are doing more on their own, without their partners.
Dining alone is different, conceptually, than booking a reservation for one. Dining alone can often be serendipitous and informal: Think of grabbing a seat at the bar for a quick bite before moving on to another activity. There's an extra level of intent and formality that comes with reserving a single seat at a table, which could dissuade some would-be diners looking for a meal without the need for dinner conversation.
When it comes to those solo reservations, DePaulo sees two possible approaches.
"In the positive sense, people are really owning it: 'I want to go out, and I'm going to do it,'" she said. On the other side, some diners may still be grappling with feelings of self-consciousness about eating alone. "They make the reservation so they commit themselves."
I adopted the former mindset for my meal at La Chaumiere.
Despite the early hour, and mostly empty restaurant, I was led to a two-top nestled against the terminal where waiters punch in orders, hovering over my shoulder while stabbing their fingers at the touchscreen. But all those employees were unfailingly polite: One dropped off my French onion soup and almost before I could plunge my spoon into its cheesy cap, another swung by to say "bon appetit!"
So many restaurant employees visited my table at various points that I couldn't tell which one was my actual server, or whether this level of attention had anything to do with my being alone.
I spotted only one other solo customer, whose phone cast an otherworldly blue-green glow onto his face. I went gadget-free and focused on what I might not have ordinarily noticed if I had someone else at the table with me: the antique agricultural tools and copper cookware on the wall; what other diners were ordering (look at that gorgeous souffle!); or what they were saying. "We're going to order a hundred-dollar bottle of wine," the gentleman at the table next to me informed his dining companion.
La Chaumiere isn’t the only D.C. restaurant to make OpenTable’s list of solo-friendly restaurants. At the completely opposite end of the dining spectrum, the buzzing hive of activity that is Founding Farmers also placed in the site's nationwide list of the top 25 restaurants for solo diners in 2015, based on the number of one-person reservations, user ratings and recommendations from the site's restaurant experts.
Spots that made the list "have been consistently providing diners with excellent hospitality and [a] full dining experience, as opposed to those who tend to relegate diners solely to bar or counter seating or restaurants providing live entertainment," Caroline Potter, OpenTable's chief dining officer, told The Post by e-mail.
"Because we're busy, we think it helps that a guest probably doesn't feel or look like they are dining alone even though they are," said Mary Carter, managing partner at Founding Farmers. Many solo diners there prefer a table to themselves, though they can opt to sit at a communal table if they want to interact with others. Just like with any other party size, there are a limited number of one-person reservations, Carter said.
Blue Duck Tavern is located in the Park Hyatt Washington hotel, exactly the kind of setting where you might expect more solo diners, as travelers -- business or otherwise -- are often eating out by themselves. Central Michel Richard may also be benefiting from its reputation and proximity to tourist attractions.
Travelers are particularly motivated solo diners, said Tracey Nesbitt, editor and food and wine columnist for the Solo Traveler blog. Based on the sentiments expressed in the blog's 120,000-member Facebook group, Nesbitt said solo dining is more robust than ever -- so much so that some take issue when the topic is discussed.
"Some people are irritated by the question," she said. "They think it's old hat."
Self-conscious diners should take comfort in the fact that, according to DePaulo's research, the people around you really don't care as much about you as you think they do. In fact, they're unlikely to even notice you.
Her experiments have also found that "people are no more likely to think pitying or negative thoughts about solo diners than about any other combination we looked at," whether the diners in question were young, old or in two- or single-gender couples.
Particularly refreshing from study participants were comments that solo diners looked secure, happy or relaxed. And the desire to be those things may be one factor driving up one-person reservations, DePaulo said.
Would I do it again? Probably, though I did miss having along my husband. Perhaps next time I'll choose somewhere that screams a little less "romantic date night." It was nice to have some quiet time to both think about my food and not have to think about anything else at all. A treat for me, planned by me.
"As our lives get more crazed and hectic and overbooked, we really start craving a nice, peaceful time to ourselves," DePaulo said.