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A Table for One

June 18, 2015

Part of me suspects that this will be a divisive issue. And it’s not one that I hear very many people talking about. However, it is one that I think deserves some attention.

Eating at the bar feels like a more common activity in the Capital Region than in other places I’ve been. Now, this could be observation error, and I’m perfectly willing to admit that. But I have a sense that this comes out of the same cultural phenomena that we’ve seen echoed elsewhere.

Surely, the history of our local taverns which have long been split into a bar side and a restaurant side have normalized the idea of eating meals at the bar.

But it goes deeper than that. Because by and large, we have a tremendous respect for and awareness of service workers. And I suspect part of the decision for people to eat at the bar has to do with a self-conscious awareness of how a smaller check will negatively impact the take home pay of a waiter or waitress.

Let me share just one more theory, and then I’ll explain why this is important.

This final, less magnanimous approach, is based on the fears–or at the very least, the feelings of inadequacy–of the dining public. I suspect there is a wrongheaded belief that the dining room should be reserved for those who are at the restaurant for the full experience. If a couple wanted to get just a few appetizers, they may opt to eat at the bar lest they appear cheap to the waiter.

So to summarize, dining at the bar is popular up here because it’s:
1) Perfectly normal, we’ve been doing it all the time
2) Helpful for the server, who doesn’t lose wages
3) Protects the ego of the diner, who may not want a full meal

But let’s say someone comes to town who does not subscribe to the regional belief structure. They are a solo diner, going out for dinner. And they want a table. In the dining room. All to themselves.

In a lot of cases, they’ll get the stink eye.

Now I have to admit something. This isn’t just an Albany phenomenon. When I worked back in the front of the house a million years ago, waiters hated to get lone diners, and they would try to push them to eating at the counter overlooking the kitchen. The bar was always an option too, but it was a popular restaurant and the bar was usually jam packed full of bodies. It was not a comfortable place to eat. That was Miami. Coconut Grove specifically, in the early 1990s.

In a town where restaurants are really busy, a solo diner at a table can really throw a wrench into the bottom line, not just for the waiter, but for the restaurant as a whole. So at the Miami restaurant, it was policy to ask solo diners if they would like to sit at the counter. However, they were our guests. So if they wanted a table, a table they would get. No arguments. No stink eye.

Single diners who want to eat at a proper table should not be treated as second class citizens. Nor should couples who sensibly realize that restaurant portions are simply far too large, and choose to order just a few appetizers (or perhaps forgo apps and dessert in lieu of one gigantic entree).

Some people might just not want to deal with waiters, and prefer ordering from bartenders. Some might like the camaraderie and background busyness that comes with eating at the bar. And that’s fine. If you want to eat at the bar, I’ve got no problem with that.

What gets me worked up is when people think they should sit at the bar because they didn’t come for a full dinner. Or that they should sit at the bar because they didn’t want to take up a table that could be used by a larger party.

Which is not to say that I think it would be okay for a solo diner to camp out at a table with a salad and glass of water on a saturday night for two hours. That’s just obnoxious. But solo diners should not be treated as second class citizens. And restaurant patrons should not feel that having a multi-course meal is the cost of entry to the dining room.

Sometimes it’s just nice to sit down and relax at a proper table to enjoy a meal. Even if you are unaccompanied. Even if that meal is one appetizer followed by another appetizer. And the service staff should treat you just as well as they treat the adjacent four top who is ordering the chef’s tasting menu and matching wine pairings for the table.

Sadly, I think when that happens, it’s the exception rather than the rule. But I’m very curious to hear what you all think about this. Did I nail it, or am I way off base?

And I’m also kind of wondering if anyone recalls the old adage about tipping counter staff less than waiters or waitresses. Back in the day it was 10% for counter service and 15% for full service. Now that tipping expectations and norms have increased, I have no idea if that tip-gap still holds. I’m relying on you all for input. So whadayasay?

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Millie permalink
    June 18, 2015 10:25 am

    I enjoy eating at the bar, even with a companion. And I definitely prefer it when alone.

    I have never heard of any tip-gap between counter and table service. Service is service, and I give my 20-25%–sometimes a bit more even if my check is super low–at the bar for a particularly positive experience.

  2. June 18, 2015 10:29 am

    There’s a lot of supposition in your post, profusser. You hypothesize on the humanitarian instincts of the solo diner and balance that with churlish actions on the part of the very same “service class” we are trying to uplift. I question whether any of this is true.

    I eat out alone more often than not, in the Cap District because of schedule considerations and on the road because I like to go out to eat and am by myself. Decisions about whether to sit at a table or the bar are made largely on my observation of the environment. If it looks like the bar really is set up to serve, I’ll sit there and enjoy some bonus conversation. If not, or if I want to really focus on the food, I’ll take a table. The establishment doesn’t seem to care though I do not get the prime real estate in the front of the room but rather a more out of the place which has smaller tables and that’s fine with me as long as I get served.

    I don’t think I have ever gotten a stink eye on its own; generally poor service which includes attitude is a mark of poor management which doesn’t single anybody out but disrespects all tables equally, or else of simple incompetence.

    I did used to tip a little less at counters but not any more; as long as I get the full measure of service I’ll tip the same as at a table.

    • June 24, 2015 3:40 pm

      If I’m dining alone, I far prefer sitting at the bar and it has nothing to do with tips. I just prefer the more social aspect of it – I’ve had so many good conversations with strangers while dining alone at bars. Were I at a table solo, I wouldn’t be talking to the other tables. Conversely, while it offers that social aspect, I also feel more comfortable diving into a book at a bar than at a table. It’s completely arbitrary, I know.

  3. June 18, 2015 11:07 am

    I have made this point before I think, it is strictly my opinion. It relates to the fact that the base culture around here (although it is changing. rapidly.) is a sort of inland-New England/Upstate New York hybrid. That is to say, many of us live inside a cage of complicated rules concerning “propriety” and “politeness.” It is a stodgy state of never wishing to inflict yourself on the public sphere in any way that might inconvenience or annoy others.

    It is a general mindset of “you are not a special snowflake” and “toe the line.” This is the same reason that what I call “generational locals” will give you a stronger than usual stinkeye for making a lot of noise in public, obstructing a grocery store line, etc, etc… Ever notice the hostility many locals have for LI folk? A lot of that is based in them not understanding/following the (often ridiculous) set of rules we have decided are in place.

    This correlates what you described. Taking up a table by yourself during peak hours would be considered “bad taste” that someone should “know better” then to do. My wife who is from downstate always used to laugh at me when I would tell her to knock off doing things that were seemingly random/silly to her. She would ask, why? I would respond, “you just don’t do that…”

  4. Laura K. permalink
    June 18, 2015 11:23 am

    As a former bartender and waitress, I rarely got the sense that people sat at the bar out of concern for the server. It’s more social than sitting at a table by yourself; you can chat with the bartender, and it’s much more likely that you’ll strike up a conversation with another patron. A table creates different personal space boundaries than a bar.

    • Laura K. permalink
      June 18, 2015 11:31 am

      I should note that I didn’t work in high-end restaurants. I would expect the restaurant’s atmosphere would impact how people make the decision of where to eat.

  5. David Nardolillo permalink
    June 18, 2015 6:32 pm

    I dine solo on a fairly regular basis at the Ginger Man, dp American Brasserie, and NWBB and I have never noted or observed such an issue and I receive very good service. I usually sit at the bar when I am alone to chat with the bartender and get a bit more insight into beverage offerings, but on occasion I ask for a table if I want to read or write before dinner comes and if a table is open, I am given one without a problem.

    If such poor treatment happens regularly, I’d be surprised. Other than certain peak flow times or events (Saratoga meet season, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day), how many restaurants here are fully committed on regular basis? It’s very few that can’t squeeze in, or enthusiastically welcome, an extra patron. You never know when that person can become a regular or spread favorable word of mouth.

    I tip 20% regardless of where I am seated.

  6. albanylandlord permalink
    June 18, 2015 10:43 pm

    I agree with Burnt – I have no problem eating alone at a table, but I often sit at the bar to eat if things are set up for that so I can chat with the bartender and with others at the bar. I am probably overly sensitive to the needs of the restaurant and staff, but a place would have to be really busy before I might consider it rude to sit alone at a table for two. Would a party of 3 feel uncomfortable at a table for four? One empty chair either way.

  7. June 22, 2015 8:46 pm

    Wow. I have always preferred eating at the bar, but I honestly never thought about any of the reasons you mentioned. Moreover, I prefer the bar if I am dining alone, with a companion, as I did tonight, or even with up to four people (where we will try to secure a “corner” of the bar, so we can face each other. It’s mostly social. We enjoy chatting with the bartender, and the waitstaff if we are near the “service” end of the bar. We get “the dirt” from the staff. What to order. What’s going on in the kitchen. It’s perfectly acceptable to chat with other patrons at the bar. Not so much in the dining room. I’ve never heard of a custom of tipping less at the bar. I suspect your friendly neighborhood bartender hasn’t either. (Or they’re certainly not repeating it) :-)

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