There are people who celebrate achievements alone or just love solitude; they walk into a busy restaurant, sit and pull out a paper, start filling the crossword, order their best food and dine solo for hours.
Then there are others, still solo diners, who want to think over a meal or drink without interruption from prying eyes. They book a large private intimate restaurant and eat alone.
Solo dining is on the rise in Kenya and high-end hotels are responding to this demand with one-person restaurants.
A person pays for private dining for one or two hours, gets their own butler, chef and wait staff. He can also dine privately with two or four people.
“This type of solo dining is a new concept associated with fine dining hotels and other luxury hotels,” says Mwingirwa Kithure, Villa Rosa Kempinski’s marketing and public relations manager.
“It is an exclusive dining room and it gives a diner privacy from the rest of the people unlike the buffet or other restaurant options.”
At Radisson Blu in Nairobi which has seen this global trend pick up, the executive chef Wissem Abdelatif says he has fond memories of people who come in to eat alone.
“One guest came in for a long stay and he wanted to try all the meals. He would engage the chef on the foods,” says Mr Abdelatif.
“After some time, he told me ‘chef, I don’t want to see the menu. Blow my mind, tell me more, give me something from your best selection,’” he adds.
Chefs in high-end restaurants have mastered the habits of solo diners and treat them differently from those in a group. They serve them faster than normal and chat with them.
According to chefs, there are two types of solo diners. There are those who want to experience different cuisines and others who want their space.
Those that want their space will be on their earphones or tablets. Perhaps they are travelling or en-route an important meeting.
The experiential ones want to watch the open kitchen theatre or observe the mixologist shaking up a cocktail.
Iman Cooper, a co-founder of Buupass, a tech start-up in Nairobi, is a foodie and loves trying out new cuisines.
She says solo dining allows her to reflect, enjoy her own company and indulge in the culinary world.
‘‘Sometimes I want to eat by myself while writing a journal or to think about new ideas. I used to write poems from just observing people in a cafe. Sometimes inspiration comes when you are by yourself and sometimes you have a chance for all of the noise to dissipate a little bit,’’ she says.
Ms Cooper says she loves great dining experiences and when she wants to try a new place, she will take herself out and enjoy. The Liberian-American started solo dining when travelling.
‘‘Solo dining also allows you to create new conversations and new connections with people that you might not have talked to otherwise,’’ she says.
‘‘When you’re alone, the barriers are kind of lowered so that other people can approach you and talk to you. The waiters are also more open to talk to you because they don’t feel like they are interrupting, they give you really good recommendations of things to try out,’’ says Ms Cooper.
In a recent work trip to Lebanon, she says, she sat alone in a cafe and a lady overheard her conversation with a waiter and recognised her accent.
‘‘She came over and we started a conversation. She was actually the hotel owner. We talked about why she started the cafe and her wanting to branch out. That was a cool experience,’’ says Ms Cooper whose start-up does digital ticketing for buses, shuttles and trains.
Awkward or lonely
However to some people, single diners are somewhat awkward, sad or lonely and it is like someone standing alone on a dance floor with loud music. Ms Cooper says you can feel awkward walking into a restaurant by yourself if everyone else is in groups or couples.
‘‘At first, it is definitely uncomfortable but as you do it more and more, you become okay with it,’’ says Ms Cooper who loves ‘‘pretty much all foods from Mediterranean, Greek, Indian, to Mexican.’’
Often, first-time solo diners find it helpful to bring books or go to restaurants at odd times to get themselves used to eating alone. Peaking at the menu beforehand also reduces uncertainty, although it might curtail spontaneity.
Making reservations in advance could mean that some restaurants set up only one spot at your table.
This reduces the anxiety of having people join you at your table in case you would like personal space as well as the imagined concern that people are wondering why you are alone and if anybody will be joining you.
Mr Abdelatif says regular hotel guests, mostly pilots of private jets and business people, are often interested in experiential dining, and chefs treat them differently.
“We mostly serve them foods that are off the menu... something like their typical dishes from home or other international foods from where they have lived before,” says the executive chef who enjoys experiencing food with groups but sometimes discovers exotic cuisines alone.
However, some high-end hotels in Kenya also get visitors on long stays or VVIPs who dine alone but they check in with their private chefs.
Restaurants in Kenya and globally are happy to cater to the new wave of single diners, just as they are for the growing number of families that eat out in Nairobi. A Knight Frank report noted that diners spent about Sh88 billion in Nairobi last year, with the amount expected to rise to Sh150 billion over the next decade.
In the solo dining rooms, the restaurants have added dimmable lights which allow a diner to choose their most suitable ambience. Their food is also served from any restaurant within the hotel.
“A diner gets the menus from, for instance, five restaurants. If you go to the Italian restaurant, you will have to enjoy Italian cuisine,” says Mr Kithure of Villa Rosa Kempinski.
Solo dining is especially popular among the affluent, Mr Kithure adds. Often, personal assistants will book the spaces on their bosses’ behalf.
“Some VIPs don’t want to be seen at the hotel lobby because they do not get the privacy yet they want to enjoy a meal. Other people pay for a private restaurant to reflect. In essence, it is your space. You don’t have any guests asking ‘is there someone seated here?’,” says Mr Kithure.