The distinct pleasures of dining alone
How and where to enjoy the perfect solo meal
One of my co-workers calls it “dating yourself.” Search for quotes about it and most are negative, going to back to the ancient Greek gourmand Epicurus, who said, “We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink, for dining alone is leading the life of a lion or wolf.”
Servers and bartenders have been known, behind the scenes, to refer to solo diners as “bar losers.” Yet the stigma attached to going out alone and enjoying a solitary meal or drink is fading and fading fast, even here in the Roc.
The reality is that eating alone can be a great way to relax and wind down, to have a conversation with a stranger, or to simply focus on the food that has been prepared for you. And savvy restaurateurs and barkeeps know that solo diners are often very loyal regulars who frequently get asked by their less-adventurous friends for restaurant recommendations. I know this is the case for me—and I’m going to offer some recommendations for places located in our center city that are especially amenable to solo diners.
But first a few notes and tips, especially for women, who may find the prospect of eating alone a little daunting. One of the big changes in the restaurant world that has facilitated dining alone is eating at the bar rather than at a table. This is not only acceptable—it is encouraged by most places. Service is often faster, conversation with your neighbors is common, and there is always a bartender or two to chat with (though if they are getting slammed I’d keep this to a minimum—they are working!). If a quieter experience is what you are looking for, by all means get a table, but don’t let them stick you in a corner where you won’t be on the server’s radar.
There are a few things you can do to avoid being harassed. Introduce yourself to the bartender or server and get his or her name. Pick a seat in a visible place. One friend who travels a lot always has a laptop open, even if she is not working—it discourages conversations, though doing so takes away one of the greater pleasures of being on your own. Opting for a higher-end place also provides some insulation from annoying drunks or would-be Lotharios. Good bartenders value solo women at their bar and should keep an eye on you. Do you have friends who do a lot of business travel? They probably eat solo a lot and may have other techniques for managing their privacy. Ask them about it.
On to the restaurants. My focus here is on center-city spots, but there are many in the suburbs that are equally friendly to the single patron. Their common characteristics include outgoing bartenders and servers who understand the value of all of their customers, good food, and an environment that feels comfortable and nonthreatening.
I’ll start with the place that started it all downtown, 2 Vine (24 Winthrop Street). Opened nearly twenty years ago, this bistro showed other restaurants how it was done and drew enormous crowds for years before losing business to the host of new places that followed in their footsteps. However, this past May, they remodeled and reopened with a larger bar, a more open and clean look, and a revised menu that is an interesting work in progress. I have a soft spot for this place and find the new space much more social with a bar staff that takes care of their single regulars. I prefer eating at the bar even when I’m with a companion, so their new setup is ideal.
Next up is one of the newest places to open, the Vesper Kitchen and Bar (1 Capron Street). Located in a space formerly occupied by the much beloved Nikko, this gastropub is a little off the beaten downtown track in the Capron Street Lofts building near Geva Theatre. In spite of the location, they have been doing very well from day one, in part I think because of the burgeoning downtown residential scene. In addition to the sixteen lofts in Capron, Geva owns thirteen that are used by their out-of-town actors and theater people, and the new Woodbury Place lofts add another twenty-six units to the block. Only steps away, Tower 280 offers more than 150 units. The net result is a demand for walkable restaurants that the Vesper is capitalizing on. New restaurants often stumble coming out the door until they get their act together, but the Vesper’s owners are very experienced, and they have created an atmosphere that encourages conversation among strangers. (Nikko had the same vibe, so maybe there is some kind of feng shui thing going on.) Among the things I’ve noticed about Vesper, from a solo perspective, is that the owners and the staff go out of their way to be on first-name basis and to greet people both in the bar and at the table. And they’re good at it. The food is good, and the drinks are excellent, with a refreshing focus on classic cocktails, but most important, it’s fun.
For a mix of very upscale and casual, Char and Hatties at the Strathallan Hotel have become go-to spots for both locals and business travelers. Hotel restaurants and bars are often terrible, in part because hotels have too often viewed them as strictly opportunities to suck more cash out of their patrons. Fortunately this is changing, and these two spots are prime examples. Because they are in a hotel, they host a lot of solo diners. The key to both places is the staff (they switch around between Hattie’s rooftop sushi bar and the downstairs steakhouse Char). They are consummate professionals and are exceptionally good at making sure every customer is taken care of and watched over. The food in both places is beautifully executed, and many consider it among the best in town. If you’re on a budget, ask about the light fare menu, featuring more casual bar food. You can eat very well without breaking the bank.
The food is also pretty special at my last choice, Ox and Stone, found on Alexander Street in the old Bamba Bistro building. Featuring a Latin theme and a spectacular dining room with vaulted ceilings, it has a warm appeal that counters Rochester’s often-crazy weather. I am lured here on a regular basis by the Baja fish tacos and the superb negronis served up by ever-pleasant lead bartender Kevin. Like many places these days, it can get noisy, but it seems quieter at the bar. For me, this is a weeknight place. The bar is laid out to encourage conversation and even when very busy, the bar staff is attentive and sociable.
The restaurant scene is one of the best indicators of the rebirth of Rochester’s center city. New places seem to be opening almost weekly. As I write this, a new Branca is set to open in Tower 280 (the original is in Bushnell’s Basin and an excellent suburban solo dining choice) and a second Fiamma (there is also one on Buffalo Road) is opening its doors on Elton Street off of University near the George Eastman Museum’s back entrance. There are two fine-dining places in the Public Market, Cure and Fiorella, and the upscale Mexican joint Bitter Honey is due to open on Railroad Street near the Market entrance. With all these options, a solo diner has plenty to pick from. So skip ordering that pizza and get out on your own. You won’t regret it!
When Martin Edic isn’t being a bar loser, he writes novels and helps manage a software company.