Man eating at empty table

Eating alone. © Jonny Hunter / Flickr

I recently sat in the bar at Tinto, a Spanish restaurant in Philadelphia. My dinner was a couple of plates of tapas — one of grilled octopus, another of sautéed wild mushrooms and caramelized shallots. I put in the order for mushrooms and shallots immediately after the couple two stools down got theirs. The smell was phenomenal. I had a couple of good glasses of Spanish red wine and had bursts of conversation with the bartender about her favorite wines and how business was going in given the economy. General chitchat.

It was a great meal and a nice way to spend a couple of hours on my own outside of my hotel room, both important things for a frequent business traveler. And it got me to thinking about what makes for a good place for a solo traveler to eat on the road.

For many guys, this question doesn’t take much thought. The sports bar concept might as well have been created for the solo guy traveler. It has everything a guy needs: a good burger, large glasses of Coors Light, and walls of TV screens showing all ESPN all the time – ESPN, ESPN-2, ESPN-3, ESPN-U, ESPN News…. But, while I like a good burger as much as the next guy (though I’ll chase it with something a bit more interesting than Coors Light), a regular diet of them is an express train to the angioplasty table.

The hotel restaurant tends to serve as the sports bar equivalent for many business women — safe and well-lit.

So, beyond these options, what makes for a good dinner place for a solo business traveler? Taking “good food” and “cleanliness” as table stakes, there are three things that come to mind:

  • Availability.
    Can you get in at a reasonable time? While on the road, I don’t start thinking about dinner until, at the most, a couple of hours before I’m ready to eat.  Any place with a month or even a day waiting list for a seat doesn’t make the cut. I’m usually working all day and have more work to do in the evening, so I have a tight dining window – I’m trying to eat somewhere between 6 and 7pm.  At Tinto in Philly, I walked in – 7 p.m. Thursday night – and was seated right away. In San Francisco the week before, I had a 7:30 p.m. reservation at a well-known pan-Asian restaurant, wasn’t seated until 8:15 p.m., didn’t get out until 9:30, and still had documents to review before I could go to bed. It didn’t make for a relaxing meal.
  • Small plates.
    I like variety; I like to try multiple things on a menu. However, a solo diner ordering a standard sized starter and main course will end up with way too much food. So, you either lose out on variety by only ordering one dish, or you feel guilty for leaving behind a bunch of uneaten food. Or, probably most typically, you eat it all anyhow en route to the 20 extra pounds that many frequent travelers find themselves carrying. Small plates – either small servings like tapas or sushi, or the option to scale down an entrée portion – are the way to solve this problem.
  • Bar seating.
    When you’re eating by yourself, nothing puts an exclamation point on it like sitting alone at a table for 2… or 4. You sit there, staring ahead, or perhaps reading, or perhaps playing BrickBreaker on your BlackBerry until your food arrives. Then you wolf it down, because there’s really nothing else to do at the table, and then you pay up and leave. A pretty soulless transaction. Skip the “table for one” experience completely. Eating at the bar gives you some shot at human interaction, be it with the bartender or some of the people sitting beside you. The bartender is usually good for 3 or 4 dialog exchanges. And though it’s a bit riskier, there’s always the chance for a bit of a conversation with the other bar patrons.

Now, if restaurants would build their web sites in something other than Flash so that I can read their menus on my iPhone…