Some of my relatives are in business, and they sometimes make the argument that if restaurants are unfriendly to solo diners, that’s just business. When a person appears at a restaurant alone, why shouldn’t the establishment have a policy of seating those singletons near the swinging doors to the kitchen in the back of the restaurant, or rushing them through their meal, or discouraging them from coming to the restaurant at all?
After all, restaurants can make more money by seating two or more people at a table than just one.
The argument always sounded bogus to me because unless every table can be filled with more than one person, restaurants are losing business by having some tables empty instead of occupied by one person. I had never walked into a restaurant that was filled to capacity when I wanted to dine on my own.
That is, not until this weekend. I was in New York City briefly for a family gathering and had a bit of time to scoot out to lunch on my own on Sunday. I headed to Eataly, a collection of about a half-dozen Mario-Batali-inspired restaurants in one big open space. In a way, it should be an ideal place for anyone who wants to dine on their own but still feels a bit self-conscious about it. That’s because there is so much going on there (the space also includes stores and a market) that any individual sitting solo in one of the spaces is unlikely to draw much attention.
I approached the hostess at one of the restaurants and asked for a table. She said that the restaurant was busy, and that it was their policy not to seat solo diners at tables during peak hours. I could, though, sit at the bar. (I walked away instead.)
There was something not quite right about the logic. Looking at all of the different tables of different sizes, I could see that three people had been seated at tables for four, and that four or five people had been seated at tables that could fit six. It would seem odd to turn away three people because one of the seats would be empty. Why did it not seem odd to turn away one person from a table that seats two?
The bigger problem, though, is that this strikes me as another example of discrimination. It is not just singlism, because anyone out to dine on their own would be a target of this discrimination, regardless of their relationship status.
It is true that the restaurant could make more money by filling every table with the maximum number of people (even though they did not have such a policy when larger tables were not completely filled). Still, economic arguments do not justify other forms of discrimination.
Suppose, for example, that a restaurant was located in a neighborhood that was very anti-Muslim. The owners might think it would be to their economic benefit to seat anyone who appeared to them to be Muslim in the back of the restaurant or only allow them to sit at the counter. Now imagine the reaction if that practice made national news!
So why is it any different to tell solo diners that their place is at the counter and not at a table?