When it comes to dining, one is no longer the loneliest number that you'll ever be.
Whether on a business trip or simply out for a night on the town, more diners are eating in restaurants alone. And while solo dining used to mean pitying glances and a table practically in Siberia, nowadays it could mean communal tables and a drink on the house, says Marya Charles Alexander, editor and publisher of Solodining.com, a Web site and newsletter aimed at those who dine alone.
"There have been stereotypes that solo diners never buy a bottle of wine, never eat a big meal and don't know how to tip," Alexander says. "Restaurants are becoming sensitive to the fact that solo diners are a profitable market that they would really do well to cultivate."
Alexander started her company 10 years ago after friends and acquaintances expressed disbelief that she would dare to take a meal alone. After a search for articles on the topic yielded only a handful of stories in mostly women's magazines, Alexander launched her business.
Filled with tips on how to make the dining experience more pleasurable and names of establishments that are "solo-friendly," Alexander's site and newsletter reach thousands of patrons -- many of whom glory in the pleasure of not having to make dinner conversation or pass the bread sticks.
"It's a chance to read, relax or just enjoy a meal that someone else has prepared," she says.
For flight attendant Sharon Wingler, it's an opportunity to write postcards, study maps of her destinations or just sit back and reflect when she is traveling.
Wingler, the author of "Travel Alone and Love It," says many of the restaurants she has visited have worked hard at making her feel comfortable, even if that means just leaving her to her thoughts.
"It's just a welcome break," says Wingler, who is based in Chicago and whose book is now in its third printing. "I've only ever had one small, bad experience, and that was at a restaurant in Greece where I waited and waited, and they just kept calling tables for two. Other than that, I've had only great experiences eating out alone."
Twenty-four-year old Merrill Bender said she's been dining alone for years. The Columbia resident, who works as a high school teacher in Prince George's County, often grabs a bite to eat after school and even sometimes dresses up to take herself out for a night on the town.
"I am seeing someone, so it's not like I have to eat alone," says Bender, who teaches health studies at High Point High School. "Honestly, at my job it's hard for me to take my own time for me because everything is about the students and focusing on the students. Eating out alone is relaxing for me."
It also gives her a chance to indulge in some people-watching, Bender says. And while Bender says she does sometimes get "weird looks" from other patrons when she dines alone, she takes it all in stride.
"It doesn't matter to me because I'm hungry," she says laughing. "It's funny to me."
Alexander says the biggest challenge solo diners often face is their own fear of dining alone. Dining solo was once deemed the action of losers and the lonely. But a solo diner today could be anyone from an employee working odd hours to someone deciding to venture beyond the borders of fast food, Alexander says.
"Sooner or later, everyone faces the challenge of dining alone," Alexander says. "Many people are surprised to find that fine dining establishments can be the most sensitive to solo diners."
To that end, many establishments have set up such solo-friendly amenities as communal tables and chef's counters, as well as tables that offer Internet access for those who wish to get a little work done while dining, and extended hours for those working late.
At Cesco, a restaurant specializing in Italian cuisine in Bethesda, owner and manager Elaine Shetz knows what it is like to eat alone.
"A lot of times, late at night after I close the restaurant, my husband isn't around, so I will go out to eat by myself," Shetz says. "Since I often eat as a solo person, I treat my customers like I would want to be treated."
For Shetz, that means courteous service and tables that are sometimes grouped in close proximity to help foster communication with other solo diners. "I give the solo diner the option of sitting where they want to sit," Shetz says. "Many times singles will comment like, 'Thank you so much for not sitting me in Siberia and treating me like I have leprosy.' "
Cathy Eraso, manager at Paolo's on Light Street in Baltimore, said wait staff there are trained to treat all customers with the same attentiveness.
"We do get a lot of business people, and we treat all of our guests well," Eraso says. "Our corporation's training program stresses that our goal is to create a lifetime customer."