Food  |  News & Politics

How to Dine Out Alone in DC

12 tips on how to go solo when dining out from the blogger behind the Hungry Lobbyist.

Image from istock. Brian Johnson not pictured.
How to Be Alone

About How to Be Alone

This article is part of our guide on how to be alone in Washington, including secrets to flying solo, our favorite places to pause in solitude, and prominent Washingtonians on how they make time to be alone.

A lobbyist by day, Brian Johnson spends his nights editing the beloved food blog the Hungry Lobbyist, where he explores, reviews, and snaps photos of what’s trending in DC’s dining scene. We asked for his tips on how to munch in solitude.

If you are anxious dining alone…

Go during off peak hours, late lunch service, or later dinner service. You’re less likely to have a lot of eyes on you if you’re worried about the perception angle. I’d also just say, “Get over it.” I mean, DC is such an interesting, fantastic, welcoming town. Politics aside, DC has always stood by the concept that food should bring us together, not divide us.

Go early, or go late

Right when a place opens in order to snag a table or a bar seat is ideal. I would also go 45 minutes before closing of the food service. This is great if you’re in town traveling, you want to hit a restaurant on your own, and you’re not opposed to eating a bit later. Make sure to call the restaurant, because the hours listed online may not be the kitchen hours.

Tap the bar

It gives you the option to talk to other people around you. Always introduce yourself to whoever’s behind the bar: they may be able to provide you with some off-the-menu suggestions or send something out on the house if they know you’re there trying it for the first time alone. I also think given the spatial arrangement of the tables in a restaurant, you may feel like the odd man out if you’re sitting in very narrow spaced two-tops, and with couples on each side of you. Call ahead and make sure they serve the full restaurant menu at the bar. I would also say call ahead when you’re 10-15 minutes out and if there is a singular bar seat available—they may save it for you.

Go for that impossible-to-get-a-reservation spot

One of the ways to experience all of these great Michelin Star restaurants or just fantastic restaurants, is to go on your own. DC is such a great food scene that getting a large party reservation last minute isn’t exactly possible a lot of times. I also think that to experience some of the more higher end restaurants DC has, dining alone is also a bit more flexible on the pocket.

For new places, try lunch service

If you want to experience a place that offers dinner and lunch, but you’re not 100% sure if you’ll like the cuisine or it could be a bit pricey, go at lunch. For the more higher end indulgent places you’re probably going to save at least 30-40% of the cost as opposed to going at dinner.

What to look for

Small plates or tapas restaurants are certainly the way to go if you want to go somewhere and sample a wide variety of things. There are a lot of places in DC that are simply known for serving larger portions. For example, if I wanted to try a few different things I probably would not go to Filomena’s by myself. I’d go somewhere a bit lighter, like say Fiola, or Del Mar, or San Lorenzo, and be able to sample a lot of different dishes.

Be a good customer

If you’re there during peak hours and you’re extremely busy, don’t take unnecessary time at a two-top. And yeah, if you’ve had great service maybe tip a little bit more. Being aware of your surroundings is key. If you go to a busy, bustling bar and there’s one middle seat available don’t go in expecting to have a charger for your phone, your laptop, your iPad, and set up a mobile work station there. That’s not considerate of the people around you.

Remember it’s a business

If you think about the price points of these restaurants, and the fact that a single person may be taking up a two-top, you could be in a situation where you feel a bit rushed or hurried. If you’re spending $200-$300 a person, and they’ve calculated that, that two-top is going to bring in $600-$700. Alone, you’re hitting them with 50% of that. I’m not saying that I’ve ever experienced this, but you frankly could have better service at the bar.

The upside

I think DC’s a great city in that, like many big cities in the US, it’s certainly very walkable. So dining by yourself also allows you to try maybe even many different restaurants in one night, where you probably wouldn’t be able to do that with two people if you’re just walking and popping in.

I think it also gives you a chance to maybe be a little more creative, if you are friendly, and introduce yourself to the staff up front and you indicate you want to try a few different things you can always ask, “Are half portions available?” As an individual, they may charge you a full portion for pasta, but maybe they will allow you to have two options on that dish.

The benefits

What do you do about splitting the check? What do you do if Sally’s not drinking and everyone else has three glasses of wine? How do you deal with that? What do you do if you’re on a date and your date’s really pushy about a certain dish that you have no interest in at all? Going out and dining all by yourself really gives you a chance to experience the menu and the restaurant in the exact way that you wanted to. At the end of the day, it’s your money so go for it.

When you can, take your time

If you’re really going to kind of do the “I want to go by myself and have a little bit of me time,” bring a good book, grab a small table, grab a corner bar seat and just let the bartender know that you’re gonna take your time and that you’re there to kind of escape and really get away.

And always, remember where you are

A lot of great places in DC obviously to have killer views. So you know if you’re here visiting or something like that, dining alone and taking advantage of that is really a great thing to do as well. There’s no reason that before a Saturday afternoon flight you can’t go down and enjoy Salt Line, or All Purpose right by the water. Or, go sit on the balcony or the outdoor patio at Del Mar and enjoy the Wharf, or any of the places downtown that overlook that monuments or on Capitol Hill. Definitely, don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re in DC and there’s plenty of amazing things to look at.

Brian’s recommendations:

  • Centrolina’s half-order pasta options at lunch
  • Fiola’s famous lobster ravioli (the lunch portion is a bit smaller, but is cheaper than the dinner portion)
  • The bar at San Lorenzo (Chef Massimo often comes out from the back of the kitchen to slice the prosciutto at the bar-mounted slicer)
  • The counter service at Lucky Buns for jovial service
  • Ponying up at the bar at All Purpose, especially on their later lunch hour 2-3 PM
  • El Sol on 11th street for hole-in-the-wall conversations over margaritas and tacos
  • The Dabney, Le Diplomate, Marcel’s, and Kinship.

Assistant Editor

Hayley is an Associate Editor at Washingtonian Weddings. Previously she was the the Style Editor at The Local Palate, a Southern food culture magazine based out of Charleston, South Carolina. You can follow her on instagram @wandertaste.