After participating in protests last month, Doug Barclay found himself walking the city alone. DC’s patios had recently reopened, and, well, he was pretty hungry and thirsty. But the obvious didn’t feel so obvious: “My brain didn’t even immediately go to the fact that I could quench both those things by sitting down,” says Barclay, who works in polling and bartends part-time for Kelly’s Irish Times.
He ultimately landed at a picnic table on the back patio of Exiles Bar on U Street. Surrounded by groups, he was the only solo diner in sight. He put his headphones on—not something he would normally do at a bar—and ordered some wings and a beer.
“I was very aware of my aloneness,” Barclay says. “I was just super aware of my surroundings in a way that I don’t think I necessarily would have been before.”
For solo diners the experience can feel extra solo right now. Tables are spread too far away to strike up the casual conversations that might feel natural sitting shoulder to shoulder at a bar. And even as bar seating has returned—albeit six feet apart—bartenders aren’t allowed behind them. Plus, at a time when everyone is hyper aware of the peril of the restaurant industry, some diners feel a tinge of solo guilt for taking up one of the limited tables that might otherwise go to a bigger party with a bigger tab.
“I knew that while I was totally welcome and having a wonderful time that should a party of six come in and I was one person at a table, I would be more than happy to be like, ‘OK, guys, I’ll sign out. I’ll see you later,'” Barclay says. That didn’t happen. But he was in and out in a half an hour and tipped 40 percent.
Kyla Johnson, a communication manager for international development firm, was also recently looking for a place to have a solo lunch. Her first destination seemed busy, so she ended up at Nick’s Riverside Grill in Georgetown. She says she specifically chose it because she knew there were a lot of tables and a lot space. She wouldn’t be taking a spot from a bigger group.
“If a server is putting themselves at risk serving you, you want it to be worth their while,” Johnson says.
Over recent weeks, I’ve asked a wide range of restaurant and bar owners how they feel about solo diners while operating with limited tables, but I’ve yet to encounter a single one who didn’t welcome them. People eating on their own tend to be particularly conscientious about their surroundings and respectful of staff. And truth be told, a lot of places aren’t so busy that they don’t have space.
“We’ve never said no to that. We have a lot of solo diners,” says Hank’s Oyster Bar owner Jamie Leeds. “We’re in the service business. We’re here to make people feel comfortable and happy wherever they are, whoever they are, if they’re alone, if they’re with guests. That’s part of what we do.”
At Lulu’s Winegarden in Shaw, owner Paul Carlson built his business around groups, with an emphasis on bottles to share rather than by-the-glass offerings. When we spoke at the end of last month, he hadn’t seen any solo diners. From a personal perspective, he said he’d feel kind of bad about taking up a table on his own. But from a business owner perspective? “I don’t have a problem with it. At this point, I value every customer.”
For Johnson, enjoying a grilled salmon salad and glass of rosé at Nick’s Riverside Grill, the extra aloneness of dining alone was welcome. Her dad had passed away in January, and it was his birthday, so she wanted to do something nice and clear her head. Aside from a server wearing a mask, the Tuesday lunch felt like any normal Tuesday lunch. And after spending so much time quarantined by herself, “this time has really taught me how to really become my own best friend.”
On the other hand, there are plenty people who go out alone for the camaraderie of strangers—something much more lacking now. Ben Eisendrath, whose company Grillworks builds wood-fired grills, describes himself as “a loner who likes to be around people.” He has always been an avid solo diner; his favorite place is to be corner seat at the bar.
“I’ve lost that part—the actual talking to people—unless I’m trying to yell at the next table, which I’m not,” he says. “When I go out dining, I really relish meeting new people and talking to the random person next to me. So that’s been missing.”
Eisendrath also tends to prefer the more intimate spaces, so the idea of going to some vast waterfront patio doesn’t appeal to him as much. Still, he’s been making outings to places like Zeppelin, where at a socially distanced two-top along the wall, he could at least soak in the surrounding chatter.
“The atmosphere was great,” he says. “It was close enough that you could hear everybody around you, get that social buzz of just energy.”