The secret is out. Solo dining has become stylish.
Increasing numbers of singles are choosing to dine out alone, and many are not settling for grabbing a bite at a fast-food joint.
Instead, they're opting for white-tablecloth restaurants with their requisite pampering.
Restaurateurs are taking notice of this trend and capitalizing on it.
Some are educating staffers and maitre d's to replace chilly greetings such as "Only one?" with warm welcomes such as "Dinner this evening?" which leaves it to the individual to indicate the number in his or her party.
Every night at the Prime Rib, at least one solo customer comes in for a meal, says manager Ken Hadel. "We treat them the same as we would treat parties of two, three or four," he says.
At Tony Cheng's, the occasional solo diner is warmly welcomed, says Jason Chu, general manager at the Charles Street restaurant. "The waiter will talk to them and make them feel comfortable," he says.
When a solo diner arrives for dinner at Tio Pepe's, employees do not automatically assume he or she wants to be hidden.
"We don't stick them in a corner," says owner Miguel Sanz. "We try to make sure they are in the middle of things."
Carolyn Brown, media relations director for Image Dynamics, dines solo at least a few times a week.
"I eat out a lot by myself. I work hard, and cooking for one can be just more trouble than it's worth," Ms. Brown says.
She relishes time spent alone reading a good book over dinner, after having spent hours talking to people all day long. "I love the peace and quiet," she says.
Solo diners are becoming welcome everywhere.
To cater to solos, New Heights, a restaurant that serves contemporary cuisine in Washington, increased its offerings of half entrees and added to its selection of half bottles of wine.
The server encourages solo diners to create a personal sampling of tastes by treating themselves to an all hors d'oeuvres meal or by combining half-entree selections.
Some restaurants are even being designed with singles in mind.
To attract and accommodate the single diners in its neighborhood, Indigo, in Los Angeles, created a cozy counter seating four that angles into the room.
Emeril's Restaurant flourishes in New Orleans' warehouse district, where about 80 percent of the residents are single.
To encourage drop-in dining, chef and owner Emeril Lagasse constructed a semicircular food bar around the kitchen.
Solos packed the place to watch him perform his culinary skills. Today, out-of-towners, couples and groups want in on the action. Nabbing one of the eight seats for dinner at the bar requires a reservation two to three weeks in advance.
These restaurants are not alone in discovering that people want the option of communal dining.
Cafe Pasqual in Santa Fe, N.M., sports an old oak "Joiners Table," a 12-seater in the middle of the room. Those in the know sit there to meet people and chat with residents. Sometimes the table talk continues past mealtime.
Owner Katherine Kagel says the table has been given the nickname, "the 'Loveboat' table." It has inspired several romantic liaisons -- one led to marriage.
What's so great about solo dining? Plenty, when you discover how the smorgasbord of solo-dining options can work for you.
For some people, solo dining is a strictly solitary activity.
Bob Spangler of Indianapolis looks to meals out alone as mental-health retreats. "It's cheaper than therapy," he says. "I have time to be with my thoughts, to relax, to read."
Jan Moss of Boston concurs. "Solo dining is the only time I have to myself," she says.
Others dine alone to be part of the dining scene without having to be in the thick of it. Some find sitting among the so-called beautiful people entertaining.
Marjorie Stich of Buffalo, N.Y., says that for her, eavesdropping while dining out is as addictive as watching soap operas on television.
Dining "on the fringe" also suits those who luxuriate in selecting a meal and savoring it.
Some contend that to experience a fine restaurant, one must eat alone. While companions can be a delightful addition to a meal, they can also distract from the nuances of the experience.
In contrast to people who prefer the solitude of solo dining, there are many who prize its flip side.
They have discovered that this traditionally lonely activity can be a springboard to companionship. Being out alone makes people more open to social experiences they might have missed had they been in the company of friends.
Lisa Richardson of San Jose, Calif., speaks fondly of an experience she had breakfasting in Bellingham, Kan. A sheriff who had spotted her car's out-of-town plates sat down beside her at the counter and made her feel welcome. Later, he showed her the tourist attractions in his town.
Larry Ruml of Chicago was asked by a hostess in a crowded restaurant to share a table with a woman who was also dining alone. This introduction started a friendship that has lasted more than 10 years.
The most rewarding aspect of solo dining may be its flexibility. Want company? Join the gang at a convivial bar. Want space to reflect? Seek out a table far from the madding crowd.
When you get the knack of solo dining, you can enjoy dining your way any night of the week.
/# New York Times Special Features