When discussing restaurant seating for singles on Community of Single People (the online group I belong to), it occurred to me that it’s an intersectional issue. Solo diners are typically made to sit at counters on high stools, often with no back. Many solo diners are older; it’s not just young people they’re relegating to the cheap seats.
In one local lunch café a few years ago, I sat in a booth and was asked to move to the counter because they anticipated a lunch rush within the half hour. I said I was sorry, but that was a deal breaker. I have two healed spinal fractures, and spending half an hour hunched on a stool at the counter wasn’t going to happen. I asked them to cancel my order. They let me stay at the table.
Lately it’s not just the singles counter that’s uncomfortable, the seating for parties of 2 or more is declining too. The trend in new bars and casual restaurants is to emphasize style over comfort—there are martini tables with high chairs, picnic-style tables with benches, or stool seating. I live in Bellingham, Washington, where microbreweries abound. Many of them have weekly trivia tournaments, and I often have to bring my own folding chair because I can’t manage their seating for the 2 to 3 hours a tournament usually takes.
Recently I saw a spoof ad for a “hipster restaurant starter kit.” The magnet set included square black glasses, a bushy beard, harsh shop-style lighting, and a metal stool. If you Google it, you see dozens of images for similar kits, all including backless stools to sit on. This reflects the direction casual restaurant seating is going.
Last summer when I was bike touring in Nanaimo, BC, I hit the shopping center down by the water that has a lot of inexpensive chain restaurants. By the time I get to Nanaimo, I’ve usually run too low on funds to enjoy the fine dining downtown and the strip mall is more my speed. I was delighted to find a Noodle Box, a newer chain I’d been curious about. I went inside and found a build-your-own-bowl format, where you choose from 3 styles of noodles and a dizzying number of toppings for a custom treat. “I think this is my Happy Place,” I announced, beaming at the counter lady. I ordered a noodle bowl with tofu and all my favorite vegetables and spices “for here,” then took a look around at “here.” Every table but one was long, low and narrow. Rows of spare black stools completed the modern Japanese ambience. The stool seats dished slightly from side to side, too narrow from front to back for a lot of North American bottoms. Only one table was higher and sported 4 metal outdoor-style chairs with high backs. All 4 chairs were occupied by young men—the only other people in the restaurant. I asked the counter lady to make my order to go. She looked at me quizzically and I said, “I have healed spinal fractures. There’s no place here for me to sit. The only table with real chairs is full.” Fortunately the young men were stereotypically Canadian, and fell all over each other to offer me one of their chairs. They said they were only going to be there a little longer, but I was welcome to join them for that time. We had a great talk; they were into my bike touring stories. It turned out to be a good experience, no thanks to Noodle Box.
Any more, restaurants need to offer at least some seating with a supportive back, that lets your feet rest flat on the floor. There are too many people out there who can’t manage tall chairs with foot rails, backless stools, picnic benches, and flat wooden booths with perfect 90-degree straight backs. If they offer only one such table, it gets filled first every time by people who don’t really need it, but still prefer to relax—who doesn’t?
An added complication that’s unique to my situation is chairs with curved backs that dig into my arm plate. I’m constantly twisting my chair around to avoid having my arm screws mashed into my flesh. A metal chair with a rounded back will leave visible bruising. I’m not suggesting that restaurants change that on my account; it’s just one more thing I have to deal with.
I think it’s important that we speak out in restaurants, bars and concert venues, and request the kind of seating we need. I carry a folding chair that fits me in the trunk of my car and often ask to bring it into places that don’t offer appropriate seating. This alerts them to the fact that they haven’t provided something I can use. I also have a back rest that forms to my body in a flat booth back, and a cushion to put under my feet if the chair is too high for them to rest on the floor—it’s often built for a man of typical height and leaves my feet dangling. For me, it’s not just a matter of not wanting to be uncomfortable for an hour, the pain can knock me out of action for the rest of the day. With my current knee injury, if my feet don’t rest on the floor, it can take me days to recover from the swelling. It’s just not worth it.
Speaking out makes a difference. Recently my favorite café, the hippie-themed Brotha Dudes, opened a second location near my home. I sent them a message that I was concerned to see so many bar stools through the window while they were setting up to open. I explained that I looked forward to spending a lot of time there, but that would not be possible for me if it was all bar stool seating. On opening day, they had a delightful assortment of brightly painted tables and chairs, every one different, with about a third of the tables meeting my needs. I reward them with lots of business and I check in on Facebook every time I go.
Do you find that good seating is becoming harder to find, and that the trend in your area is toward “fun” seating that’s not comfortable for a lot of people? How do you adapt?