Solo Dining Series: Princi

Overview

  • Restaurant Name: Princi
  • Total Spending: £12
  • Dining Duration: 30 min (6:00 – 6:30)
  • Awkward Level: 1/5
  • Seating: Bar table by the wall
  • Interaction with waiters/waitress: 2 times

Pre-dining Expectation

I have passed by Princi many times, but it just never occured to me to walk in and eat for some reasons. One is probably becuase when I'm usually in the area, I am usually with other people, and they tend to lead and choose the places. Two is that the place looked more like a chained restaurant/cafeteria, which are not exactly the type of places I would like to go. When I eat out, I like to explore and potentially finding some hidden gems. I was quite surprised to discovered that Princi is actually not a big chain (not in London, in Milan though).

Once I entered, the wait staffs could probably see the confused look on my face. There were two different areas in the place, and I was trying to figure out why. A manager came up to me and asked, "First time here?" I told him it was my first time and he explained how the place works. They have a pizzeria, which is made-to-order and offers table services, on the left and self-serve food counters on the right. With the self-serving sections, they have a great variety of choices, from cakes, pastries, breads to sliced pizzas and selections of salads. 

With a big plate, you can select up to four different 'dishes'. I got a green salad, pumpkins with creme, beetroots, and quinoa with salmon; and then ordered for a bottle of sparkling water to go with it. It's like eating at a buffet, but instead of getting your own food, they help you to put on the plate. I looked around and found a spot at the bar table, which was facing the wall with some weird water fountain setting. I would prefer the window seats, but it was already mostly taken and I didn't want to sit right next to other people. 

Since I had nothing to do or see while eating, I decided to read on my iPad. The food was nothing surprising but tasted not bad. I liked the fact that I could create my own combination. It didn't take me long until I got full, I couldn't finish the whole thing. So I just sat there reading, and picked on some more food here and there once in awhile. I liked the feeling that I don't feel rushed by the latter customers coming to eat. I could take my time and eat. 

Always room for desserts

I was at the hair salon earlier today, and my stylist told me there's a dairy-free ice cream place called Yorica. I have recently decided to cut out dairy products from my diet and testing out whether my skin condition would improve. Coincidentally, it was just right across the street, so I decided to give it a try. I first tried the ice cream flavors, but since it was made with coconut milk, the coconut flavor was quite strong, which I am not a fan of. I then tried their fro-yo, which was less coconuty, so I ended up getting a vanilla and matcha fro-yo topped with some fruits. 

This time, I sat next to the window and just watching the passersby. It just felt really relaxing and a good ending for the meal. 


Princi
135 Wardour St, London W1F 0UT
www.princi.co.uk
020 7478 8888

Solo Dining Series: The Palomar

Overview

  • Restaurant Name: The Palomar
  • Total Spending: £49
  • Dining Duration: 1 hr (6:45 – 7:45)
  • Awkward Level: 1/5
  • Seating: Open kitchen bar
  • Interaction with waiters/waitress: 6 times

Pre-dining Expectation

When I came across this restaurant on the recommended list for solo diners, I was quite intrigued to see Jerusalem food here in the UK. I have been to Jerusalem when I was in elementary school, but to be honest, I can't recall what types of food we had when we were there. I was also particularly drawn by their asthetic style, seeing their beautifully designed branding immediately added bonus points in my mind. 

I tried to book in advance, but there wasn't any availability during my chosen time slots. Reading from their website and other reviews that there's a waiting bar available, I thought I'd just drop by and if I'm lucky, I get seated right away; if not, I wouldn't mind a drink before dinner. When I arrived, the front house host was busy settling couple groups of guests. He rushed in and out of the different section of the restaurant and apologized to me more than 3 times, asking me to wait on the side. When he finally finished, I told him I was here on my own; he looked through their reservation list and told me that the wait would be about an hour. My heart sank but decided to stay positive and give it half an hour before I go elsewhere to eat. The guy told me that I can leave my numbers and he will call when a table becomes ready. He didn't offer me to the bar area – was it full? or did he think that I wouldn't be interested? I don't know...

I gave him my number and walked to the Costca coffee around the corner, since I didn't want to walk too far away from the restaurant. 

Time to eat

After 30 minutes, the restaurant called - yay, lucky me! I went back and was led to sit at their kitchen bar. The restaurant was probably one of the busiest out of my experiment so far, not only the kitchen staffs were chatting, singing while cooking, guests were also talking, and perhaps the narrow aisle added to that 'crowdness', but it wasn't a negative impression of noisy, it was just lively, which I quite enjoyed. 

There was a couple sitting on my left hand side, and a women in about her mid-40s sitting alone on my right. While I was trying to figure out what to eat, I could hear the waitress coming by to ask whether the lady wanted to order more food or drinks. I could sense the lady got a bit frustrated as she said no thank you but the waitress kept pushing. 

The thing about solo dining is that your eyes are always more hungry than you really are.
Especially if you go to a new restaurant for the first time, you'd want to try many different dishes and making a decision tend to be very difficult. Sometimes you end up listening to the staff's recommendation, and if it didn't turn out the way you expected, you'd wish that you have stuck to your original instincts. Today, I decided to go with my own guts. I ordered fish of the day, which was cod with tomato sauce, polenta with asparagus and mushrooms, and sweet potato chips (i read many reviews about it!). I didn't know what polenta was, but since I love mushrooms (again!) and asparagus, I just got it anyways. 

The sweet potato chips were amazing! It was seasoned nicely and wasn't greasy at all. It also comes with yogurt and mint sauce for dipping, but I like it plain. The polenta was served in a very cute tin pot, it had a texture kinded reminded me of mash potatoes. It was really delicious, and I then learned that it's one of their signature dishes. However, it was too rich that I could only finish 1/3 of it, just eating the vegetables and sadly leaving the rest of polenta. While I waited in between dishes, I saw the chefs grilling some bread that looked fluffy and tasty. I wonder what it was on the menu, thinking I wish I had gotten that or have it next time when I'm here. A few minutes later, the fish arrived, and also served with generous piece of fluffy brioche that I was eyeing for – dilemma solved!

So much food, just for one (full)

So much food, just for one (full)

For dessert, I asked the waitress whether to pick Orange Blossom Ice Cream or the Chocolate Crémeux. She recommended the Chocolate Crémeux, which was a very smooth-textured earl grey infused crémeux, with blood orange, milk streusel, cardamom marshmallow & coco-hazelnut tuile. When they served it, it came on a giant stone-like plate, much more bigger than I expected. I watched the chefs preparing other desserts and they were all served in small cups, so I was expecting something similar in size. If i had known how big it was, I probably wouldn't have gotten it. I don't know why i always like asking for recommendations; I suppose they know better about the food they serve. However, seems like most of the time I always wish I had stuck with my own choice. It could be, perhaps, I would still have not liked what I ordered, but at least I would be more comfortable since it was my own call. I think for future reference, I should just go with my instinct. 

Post-food Reflection

The Palomar is definitely worth coming back again, whether it's by myself or with few other friends. The kitchen bar makes me feel very at ease – people going in and out, and constantly talking noises around, doesn't make me feel out of place. The only thing I would change is to take more initiatives and inform the wait staffs what I am in the mood for and how hungry I am, so I don't over-order.

While I was eating, two other ladies came to sit next to me, both by themselves. One seemed like she just finished watching the show with a program booklet in her hand, and the other one seemed as if she just got off work. So far throughout my experiment, these two were the first solo female diners I came across. I noticed that one of them also ordered a polenta but in a much smaller portion. I felt a bit disappointed as it wasn't available on the menu and the waitress didn't inform me of the option. So I decided to make a suggestion while I was paying for the meal. The waitress (she wasn't the one who took my order) said that she always tell the customers if they are dining by themselves, but she said to make sure the message will be passed on to the rest of the staffs. 


The Palomar
34 Repert Street
London, W1D 6DN
info@thepalomar.co.uk
0207 439 8777
 

Solo Dining Series: Barrafina

Overview

  • Restaurant Name: Barrafina
  • Total Spending: £36
  • Dining Duration: 55 min (5:45 – 6:40)
  • Awkward Level: 2/5
  • Seating: Center bar area
  • Interaction with waiters/waitress: more than 10 times

Pre-dining Expectations

I love the food at Barrafina. They serve a wide variety of Spanish tapa dishes that are great for groups to share. I've been there a couple times and was a bit worried how eating there by myself would be, as I definitely wouldn't be able to get the varieties that I usually could get. Knowing that it's always busy during meal time, I tried to avoid the peak hour and arrived a bit earlier than normal dinner time. When I arrived, it was still quite empty, with only 2 couples and one man by the corner. 

At Barrafina

There are 3 different Barrafina branches, and I went to the Drury one, since I have been to the other two. All Barrafina have an open kitchen with gorgeous marble-topped bar where guests can sit and watch the chefs in action; except the Drury branch has a few tables outdoor by the alley. Right when I stepped in, the waiters all greeted me with friendly smile. With one particularly engaging, I asked him where I could sit. "Anywhere you like, ma'am," he answerd. 

I would usually take the corner seat however since it was already taken, I decided to sit in the middle of the bar so I could have a better view of the food prepping and also made sure that I won't be left alone in the corner and difficult to get waiters' attention. I sat one seat away from the couples, leaving some personal space in between. Since the table mat menus were already set in front of each seats, I began to figure out what I wanted for the day. Not long after, the waiter came with special menus and introducing them to me one by one and occasionally pointing to the fresh ingredients in the back of him. I thought the gesture was particularly thoughtful, not only does it provide an opportunity for conversation, but also allowing me to understand better, since some of the names of dishes I wasn't particularly familiar with. After having that brief conversation, I didn't feel so much intimidated if I had to ask him further questions, or just some simple chit chat.

I wasn't particularly hungry today, but I still wanted to have a bit of variety. So I told the waiter to stop me if I ordered too much. I got a portobello croquette, grilled cabbage and cod tempera, paired with a glass of white cava. While I was waiting for the food, I sipped on my cava and emersed myself in the environment, watching the active interactions happening in the kitchen. I couldn't quite understand what they were talking about, since it was a mix of Spanish and English, but they definitely seem like they were in a good mood while working non-stop.

Time to eat

People who know me well know that I'm a fan of mushrooms, so of course I wouldn't skip the portobello croquette. However, two of those is quite a lot considering they were deep friend and creamy. That's when I wish that if someone had come with me. Reminded me of the past experiences eating here with several other friends, we would all have a taste of something but then wouldn't get tired of the taste and can try more than 3 dishes. 

I thought the portion I ordered was just right. Once again, Barrfina did not disappointed me. My favorite was probably the crispy cabbage – it was grilled with creamy garlic sauce and topped with sliced almonds. Never thought the almonds would go so well with cabbages, this is definitely something I'd like to try to make at home someday. 

After I finished the 3 dishes, I felt that I still had some room for dessert. The lemon sorbet stood out to me, as I wanted end with something refreshing after dinner. 

"What's in the lemon sorbet?" I asked, considering its quite expensive for a sorbet (£6) compared to a scoop of ice cream which was only £2. 
"Just lemon sorbet, but served in a real lemon. It's really good" the waiter replied.
"Ok I'll have a try."

I was curious what makes it so special. When it came up, it was a lemon cut in half with sorbet contained inside. It was cute and the taste was also refreshing, just the way I wanted. But if I had known it was like that, would I have ordered it? Probably not...it was good but not *oh-my-gosh-kind-of-amazing* that I'd pay for the price. Oh wells, lesson learned. As my dad always tells me, it's the experience that you're having while eating, the eating is just a part of the whole experience. 

Post-food Reflection

Tapas is good for solo dining as the portions are small, but if you are a person like me who enjoys variety in their meals, I would strongly suggest to bring a friend or two. I was glad that I stayed in control and get tempted by a wide selection. The portion I had was just the right amount and had a bit extra room for dessert. Besides food, the overall experience was stressfree and satisfying. The human interaction was the part that made my meal most pleasant. From the beginning when they greeted me from the bar, instead of standing at a reception table, made it as if an old friend was welcoming me to their house. Then with a detailed explanation of today's special, it opened up the conversation and broke the ice. Every interaction was between inside the bar (chefs/waiters) vs outside (customers) – simple and straightforward. I never had to look behind me and search for waiters/waitresses; they were always in front of me.

That being said, with all the staffs working in the crowded open kitchen space, the level of collaboration and mutual understandings are crucial. Despite the space was limited, they didn't seem chaotic or rushing around; they handled every customer with great passion and kindness. Perhaps, that's the secreat to their success – of course, the food also add on top of that!


Barrafina
43 Drury Lane, Covent Garden, London, WC2B 5AJ
www.barrafina.co.uk

Solo Dining Series: Kanada-Ya

Overview

  • Restaurant Name: Kanada-Ya
  • Total Spending: £19
  • Dining Duration: 28min (excluding waiting time, 6:27 – 6:55)
  • Awkward Level: 4/5
  • Seating: Communal table with 7 other people
  • Interaction with waiters/waitress: 4 times

The Wait

I hate queuing. I either eat at somewhere with no queue, or places where I can make reservations in advance to ensure that I will be seated at the time I arrive. The only time that I'd queue for eating is when the wait is less than 30 minutes (because though they usually tell you the wait is 30 minutes, it's usually less than that) and I don't have to be there waiting on the spot; another situation may be when I'm with some friends and we could just chat and kill time. I remember one of my best experiences was waiting at Dishoom, where they would give you hot chai, which makes waiting in the cold so much better. You could also escape into their bars, and drink while you wait – another strategy by the restaurants trying to squeeze more money out of you, haha (I know several other restaurants are also doing similar things, ie. Company Below, Wahacha, etc.). Anyways, we're derailing now...back to topic.

When I arrived at the restaurant, there were approximately other 10 people in the queue. There was no sign of estimated waiting time, and I was tempted to go to the other ramen place (Ippudo) across the street, which had no queue and also quite good. Just when I was about to walk across the street, some people in front of me gave up queuing and crossed the street.

Makes me wonder: How can you encourage people stay queueing in line? 

I joined the queue with other strangers. There were groups of friends, and some were couples. I was the only one waiting by myself. After 10 minutes wait, the waitress came out with some menus for us to look at first, and also asked each party size. When I said one, she didn't reacted differently comparing to others – no surprises, no hesitations. I suppose many people come here alone as well. 

In the restaurant

After about 30 minutes, it was finally my turn – a big group has just left, so i was being seated in the corner of a large table, which was immediately seated with two more groups of friends, a total of 7. I was the only one dining by myself, which immediately felt very awkward, and I wish I had just insisted on waiting for the window table on the side.

The whole time I was eating, I didn't know where to look. The waiting for the food part was probably the most painful part. I kept drinking on my oolong tea, as I had nothing else to do. I tried to act normal and calm, and looked at some surroundings occassionally, but still, everytime I made an eye contact with people across from me, I felt they were looking at me weirdly. 

The food arrived about 5 minutes later, but I felt that it was one of the longest 5 minutes in my life. I just wanted to focus on my ramen, eat and get out. While I was eating, I could hear the conversation of those friends around me. By the time I finished my dinner, I could already piece out the story: they are all new Londoners, coming to study interaction/graphic designs. Two of them are couples, and the other girl is their 'possible-classmate'. One of the girls was from Hong Kong, and have lived in Malaysia and Singapore before moving to London. She went to Canadian international school in Hong Kong...and the guy said that he doesn't eat spicy food until he met his girlfriend, who is half Chinese...and as you know, by the end of the meal I can already tell you so much about them. 

I mean, don't get me wrong, it's interesting hearing people's story, but just eavesdropping like that makes me feel very uncomfortable. I wonder what they think if they realized that their life story has been over-heard by another stranger? I know I certainly wouldn't really like that. There was a point that I wanted to jump in the conversation, since they obviously share similar background with me, all studying creative/design related field. However, I only had that thought for one split second and then gave up. Imagine how awkward it would be, having a stranger budging in the conversation while you're having a meal with group of friends? **AWKWARD**

The food was not even the point anymore. I felt very self-conscious the whole time I was eating there, so I just tried to finish as quickly as possible, without being too sloppy looking. I know that in Japanese culture, it's okay to slurp your noodles; in fact, the louder the better, meaning the food was really delicious. However, given the fact that we're not in Japan, I still tried to maintain the western manners and ate quietly/lady-like. 

Post-reflection

By the time I finally got out, I felt more relieved. I finally have more personal space and a peace of mind. Eating ramen is usually quick and straightforward. By choosing to eat ramen, you tend to expect the efficiency of it. The experience having to wait for ramen, and eat with a bunch of strangers in a communal table was definitely not one of the most pleasant experiences. If I were to go back again by myself, would definitely insist on sitting at one of those bar tables or window seats (facing the street). I think I'd probably be more comfortable slurpping my noodles to the pedestrians rather than to strangers across the table. 


Kanada-Ya
64 St Giles High Street, London, WC2H 8LE
0207 240 0232
www.kanada-ya.com

Solo Dining Series: Blixen

Overview

  • Restaurant Name: Blixen
  • Total Spending: £15
  • Dining Duration: 50 min (6:25 – 7:15)
  • Awkward Level: 1/5
  • Seating: Single table near the entrance
  • Interaction with waiters/waitress: 7 times

How I got here?

After a day of work, I've decided to come to somewhere close by work. Based on the restaurant list I've created, I manage to find Blixen within walking distance. It was one of the most mentioned restaurants good for solo dining, so I was keen on finding out what's 'so good' about it. Now that I'm working at OpenTable, I managed to book the restaurant through the system, and specifically asked to be seated in the garden area, after seeing the lovely picture. I knew it was going to be a nice weather, so I thought I'd treat myself with the last bit of sunshine before the day goes dark. 

Right when I stepped in side the restaurant, the host greeted me with a warm friendly smile. I told her I've made a reservation for one. 'Emily?' 'Yes." I replied. Unfortunately, when I arrived, the host told me that the garden was under construction, as they are going to move the main entrance there, to welcome their guest with better setting/atmosphere. 'Would you like to sit here?' she pointed to the seat close by the entrance. Probably because it was still early (6:30) so the entire restaurant only had two groups of people (5 businessmen, one couple), with one other man by himself. I looked around and said I'd prefer to sit further inside. I picked a corner seating with benches, where I can comfortably put my things next to me. Right after I was seated, another waitress came to greet me, and asked what I'd like to drink. Since it's a weekday, I decided just stick to water. 

First Impression

Upon the friendly faces at the restaurant, and the sunlight shinning through the window, the overall atmosphere of Blixen is very welcoming and comfortable. I guess also because there weren't that many people then, I felt very at ease, just relaxing after work. I looked around, there is one couple sitting in front of me, and a group of businessmen in suits sitting on the other side of the room (an elevated booth area), and further down towards the opposite corner, there's a man drinking red wine and reading a book by himself. 

I looked around, and since I didn't bring a book but also can't play on the phone, I was kind of bored. Just when I was about to try my best to resist to pick up my phone, the host came and asked if I would like to read some newspaper. **BING** She was right on time and saw the needs of mine. I was really grateful for her offer. I usually don't like to read newspaper when eating, because the ink gets my fingers all dirty. Good thing I came prepared, I got hand sanitiser in my purse. So I just read, read, and waited for my food. 

The eating part

The food came really quickly, I got a kale salad with beetroot, avocado, and walnuts, in addition with chips on the side. I put away the papers and eat away. The salad was really well seasoned – I've never had this combination before, I was thinking to myself, perhaps I'm gonna try to remake it again at home. So I focused on every single bite, trying to figure out what they put in there to make it taste so nicely. 

I am a big salad eater, at home, most of my dinner is salad. It's easy to make, healthy, and easy to clean up. You can call me lazy, but I love my salads. However, I defintely noticed that at home, I don't mind so much when some part of the leaf is sticking out of my mouth (not very lady-like, I know), but when I'm eating out, I would cut up the leaves and try to take smaller bites, and wipe my mouth every other bites to make sure that no dressing is around my lips. 

The eating was done pretty quickly, despite I took small bites. Maybe I was really focused on eating. While I was eating, there were more and more people coming in. Two more couples came in, a group of friends (look like visitors, with lots of shopping bags) and then 2 ladies sitting at the bar. I noticed that the staff numbers also increased accordingly, two more male waiters showed up, and the place finally begin to bustling more like a restaurant that I'm used to. 

Before I go

For some reason, I felt that I was more connected to the host rather the waitress who ordered for me. When I asked for the bill, I told her about my research and asked if I could ask her some questions. She was really opened about it and shared with me what she knew from her first-hand experience. 

Q: I've read about your restaurant being a place suitable for solo dining. Why do you think is that?
A: I think it's the seating arrangement. The seat that I offered you in the beginning is the favorite spot for people coming here by themselves. You can be on the side of the room while still feeling like you're a part of the bigger group. 
Q: Do you see many diners coming here by themselves?
A: Yes, quite a few. Some people come here to eat, some just have a drink; maybe read a book or something. 
Q: What do you do to accomdate those solo diners?
A: We try to be friendly and see what they need help with. Offer newspaper or something to read, like what I did to you as well :)
Q: Are there many solo diners who make reservations in advance?
A: Mmm, I'd say 1 out of 50.

I was really thankful for her cooperation, I know it's their busy hour, but she was really patient with me. I wish I could ask more, but I don't want to be rude so I thanked her and walked out. 

The favorite seat of solo diners at Blixen.

The favorite seat of solo diners at Blixen.

Post-food Reflection

Blixen is a place that I'd go back. Food is great, price is reasonable, and staffs are attentive. Next time, I might try going with a book, or with some friends :)


A little twist

So...the next day, which was my last day interning at OpenTable, my colleagues took me to a 'surprise lunch'...and guess where it was? Blixen (again!) I was quite happy, since then I could compare the experiences between solo dining vs group dining. The overall experience was still good, and the food was again, amazing. However, this time, we were able to sit in the garden area, which I requested to sit last evening but was told it was under construction!! Words can't describe how disappointed I was – it completely ruined my good impression of them. I understood if they didn't want to open up that area during dinner time, since I would be the only one there, but having lied to me about how that area is not accessible due to construction is just a total NO-NO. 

They probably didn't know that I'd be back the next day to find out...I mean, normally people don't go to the same restaurant two days in a roll, but that's just very dishonest. Makes me wonder could that be some sort of discrimination for solo diners? I wonder if today I had a group of people going with me, would they still have told me the same 'story'? 

As final thought, honesty is still the best policy. Please respect your customers, no matter group or solo – you never know how many more people they will bring back next time...


Blixen
65A Brushfield Street
London E1 6AA
020 7101 0093
www.blixen.co.uk