Published on March 3rd, 2014 | by M.L.Flanagan2
A guide for the solo diner in Tacoma: where to go, where to avoid
I have, in the past, read articles aimed at coaxing the shy, self-conscious singleton into venturing out for a meal at a restaurant — gasp! — alone! This is not that sort of thing. If you can’t see yourself eating out alone because, I don’t know, you would feel like people were “looking at you” or that you shouldn’t be “spending money that way” then this certainly isn’t a guide for you. For those unafraid to venture out alone, I share the findings of my ongoing quest to get decent service as a solo act in Tacoma.
I have never had the least shred of a qualm about eating out alone since the days when I had a passel of babies at home and would, of a Saturday, tell my then-husband that I was going grocery shopping. I would, eventually. But first I made a beeline to a little cafe in the next town and enjoyed an unencumbered meal. Eating alone was paradise, a blessed hour to savor food and a good book. I still get a whisper of that cherished solitary bliss each time I walk into a restaurant alone.
There are some places that do a creditable job of treating singles with every bit as much consideration as the flocks. And there are some that don’t. First, the places that treat the single diner with the same degree of care and attention they show the masses.
East and West Cafe, 2514 N Proctor Street
Nine times out of ten, I am greeted and seated almost as soon as I walk through the door. Water and beverage of choice follow swiftly. The wait staff are attentive but not annoying (a fine line). When I make special requests, no one bats an eye.
Parkway Tavern, 313 N I St
Even when they’re slammed, they scan for new arrivals and one or another of the delightful staff generally arrives at my table within one or two minutes (I do time these things). They are experts at keeping an eye out for the near-empty glass, and bonus: they remember your poison of choice.
The Lobster Shop, 4015 Ruston Way
I love going here for the Twilight and Happy Hour menus. Since I often go on a whim I typically sit at a table in the bar. Lobster Shop service is snappy and professional. When I order my steak rare, they stand by for the first cut to make sure it’s spot-on.
The Harvester, 29 N Tacoma Ave
How do you like that juxtaposition? Yeah, I go to the Harvester. Have you had their meatloaf? Bloody Mary? Nachos? Wait staff at The Harvester make you feel like you’re welcome as welcome can be. They smile. They never give you the bum’s rush. If you have your book, they leave you alone, chat-wise. It’s kind of like family.
Maxwell’s Restaurant & Lounge, 454 St Helens Ave
This is such a pleasant bistro/bar. The food is reliably yummy, as are the drinks. I generally sit at the bar to ensure prompt service, but the wait staff are just the right degree and combination of friendly/professional.
Harbor Lights, 2761 Ruston Way
I try to forget that Harbor Lights is Anthony’s and the best way to do that is to sit in the bar. Service there is speedy and attentive, and no matter how busy they are, I never feel bad about taking up a table in the bar. Plenty has been said about the drinks, but I will recommend their Old Fashioned, which is in the Wisconsin style, and is delicious. And last time I was there, I got to witness the most adorable first date between two octogenarians.
Enoteca, 21 N Tacoma Ave
This is the charming little wine bar conjoined with Tacoma Wine Merchants. Whether I take a seat at a table or the bar, I experience impeccable, attentive, professional, and knowledgeable service from proprietor Bill. This is the only place in Tacoma where I have felt that I, as a single, was valued more highly than a group.
Doyle’s, 208 St Helens Ave
I don’t know what Doyle’s does to prevent staff turnover, but clearly something is working. Doyle’s service is characterized by a cheery greeting when you walk in, and an informal, family vibe. Like The Parkway, they remember your “settings” and generally receive special requests with minimum fuss.
Hilltop Kitchen, 913 Martin Luther King Jr Way
HK does not need my imprimatur on their drinks or food menu, but this is about service to the solo diner. when I go to HK alone, I always take a seat at the bar. This is not just to ensure the level of service I like, but to watch the alchemical action. The barkeeps at HK will cater to your every whim (well, unless your whim happens to be some concoction involving whipped-cream-flavored vodka) with professionalism and skill. Attention is paid.
I know there are other excellent restaurants who care for a single diner and I look forward to hearing of more; please don’t be shy about sharing your favorites.
The Not Good
When you are alone, undistracted by a dining partner, the way you are treated by your server — being your sole human contact during the meal — has increased importance. In Tacoma eateries, not only have I encountered less-than-pleasant experiences, I have discovered a little-discussed area of discrimination. There are many servers who are prejudiced against, or perhaps just blind to, the solo diner.
Servers of Tacoma: I get that you stand to net larger gratuity from that 4- or 6- or 8-top. But, those 4, 6, or 8 folks probably aren’t like me; they’re not potential weekly diners at your joint.
Say your 8-top totals a modest $250 tab. Maybe you get a tip of $35, $45? Those folks may come back in six months. You make about $100 in tips from them in a year. Here I sit, a lone creature but one who might, if well-treated, come back every week. That math? More than $1,500 in food a year, with tips totalling $350 (I have a penchant for tipping more than 20%). It is contrary to all our interests for you to ignore me in order to serve that louder, more demanding gang.
Diners of Tacoma: there are some strategies to help you get the attention you deserve as a singleton. Actually, just one: sit at the bar. At the bar you have a captive tender at your beck and call (so don’t be obnoxious), and most barkeeps are sensitive to your level of interest or disinterest in conversation.
Despite this strategy (and your obvious value as a single dining local), a great experience is not a guarantee. It is now my task to reveal those Tacoma eateries that treat the solo diner as a pariah — or worse — a non-entity.
Art House Cafe, 111 N Tacoma Ave
Oh, Art House, how I have tried to love you. Friends of mine love you. You are busting at the seams on weekends. But when I, the solo diner, happen in. . .hello? I can get a table quickly (I choose my times judiciously), but from there on, it’s a crap shoot that always comes up snake-eyes for me. Pretty much any time there is a table of more than one, that table gets preferential service. One recent evening I visited Art House to give them yet another chance — and I was the only one there! Callooh! Callay! I thought. Yet Art House wasn’t ready to break their string of disappointment. I sat with an empty glass for 27 minutes.
Harmon Tap Room, 204 St Helens Ave
Seldom have I felt myself such an imposition as at a recent visit to the Tap Room. May I have a menu? Oh. OK. May I have some water? Oh. OK. May I order? Just a minute . . .I have a whole table of drinks to get out.
(Translation: “A whole table” equals “More important than you”) Also, a cranky aside from a connoisseur of charcuterie/cheese boards: Really, Tap Room? You expect people to put all the cheese and meat on one tiny, rock-hard crostini? Really?
Pacific Grill, 1502 Pacific Ave
I have been to Pacific Grill solo and with friends many times, and with friends is definitely the better experience. For starters, you feel like you’ve asked for John the Baptist’s head on a charger if you ask, as a solo act, to sit in the bistro area. So just schlepp yourself straight on in to the bar. Service is spotty with no intuitive sensing of the diner’s needs (as there is, for instance at THE HARVESTER), but the food is typically good.
Joeseppi’s, 2207 N Pearl St
I know, I know; why would one go to Joeseppi’s? Well, it’s on the way home if I go a roundabout way. I sit in the bar. Big table of old ladies having some sort of reunion. Takes 15 minutes to get a menu; 30 to order; 45 to get a glass of wine. Enough said.
C.I. Shenanigans, 3017 Ruston Way
As with Pacific Grill, I have been to C.I. Shenanigans many times with friends and as a single. A group garners the good service. Singles are trumped by any table with two or more folks. Full disclosure: I have not sat at the bar, only booths, during Happy Hour. For a place that aspires to be a class act, it makes its single patrons feel third-class.
My parting shot: purveyors of food and drink, take a page from the social workers’ code of ethics and cultivate “unconditional positive regard” for your clients, whether they come in droves or by ones. Remember the calculations above — your return solo diner represents ten times the tip you get from a group of out of town yahoos. (And you never know which of your solo diners is writing about you.)