There has been a lot of talk in recent weeks about dining alone. When one restaurant allegedly established a (quite frankly extortionate) minimum dining rate for solo diners, social media was up in arms. I say allegedly because that same restaurant came out and said the facts weren’t exactly true, and that they welcomed solo diners, to a point, with open arms, but couldn’t afford to give up multiple tables to a bill that would be half what it could be. I suppose in many ways it makes fiscal sense, but by that point it was too late. The discourse horse had bolted.
It did, however, get me thinking about the joys of counter dining. While perhaps once the overflow space for a busy restaurant, the counter has been having its place in the sun in recent years. Many fine dining restaurants are opting for an intimate, chef’s table-style setup where guests sit side by side in a horseshoe around the kitchen. And what better way to avoid all the hubbub of dining alone then by simply taking up a single seat rather than a table for two?
But, not simply the reserve of solo diners, sitting at a counter can offer so much more than just optimisation of space. There is the obvious spectacle of the culinary theatre taking place directly in front of you, the added interaction with both chefs, sommeliers and waiters, the chance of possibly befriending the person wedged in next to you, and an intimacy that can’t help but make you feel like you’re at one big party.
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I dined at Aulis for the first time last week, the London outpost from Simon Rogan, who is perhaps best known for his three-Michelin-starred L’Enclume in Cartmel. Charlie Tayler, head chef at Aulis, does a superb job of embodying the magic of Rogan’s Lake District restaurant while still bringing his own unique touch to the menu (or so I’ve been told, having not yet been to Cartmel myself to make the comparison). Either way, sitting wrapped around the recently refurbed kitchen table as the team move seamlessly in front of you, is a joyful experience no matter whether you’re alone or with five of your best pals.
Tayler and his team have perfected the balance of making the whole thing seem extremely easy and slick while still keeping things fun. This very intimate dining set up suddenly becomes an entirely different experience when the people who are mere centimetres away from you are stilted or stressed. But not at Aulis. Sommelier Charles Brown gives informative, emotive descriptions of each bottle without being patronising. It helps that the drops he’s pouring, be it a South African chenin blanc or a Washington State cab sauv, are delicious and interesting and push the boundaries of what you might expect to drink at a restaurant of this calibre, in all the best ways. Having the opportunity to chat to him more about how he put together the pairings is just one of the many benefits of dining in this context.
The newly-opened Mountain might not hold the same chef’s table format, but it’s still commanded by a series of counter-dining spaces that make dining solo or chancing your luck on a walk-in an entirely more pleasant (or likely) experience. The main dining room is book ended by two of these spaces (although I suppose the one on the right is more of a high-top table but… walk with me here), while the downstairs bar seating is all together sexier, which is a great option if you’re hoping to accidentally fall in love with the person sitting next to you (actually, that’s a great idea for a rom com).
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Humble Chicken, similar to Aulis, is dominated by a slick team that makes watching their creative process extremely enjoyable. Angelo Sato’s food is big on flavour while still managing to remain elegant and refined; a hard balance to strike. Esoteric drinks pairings come from the impressive Aidan Monk who always manages to push the boat out with the bottles he picks, be it a sake that’s made under the arches in Peckham, or a juicy shiraz from the Barossa Valley. Best of all, they engage you at every step of the process, and never seem too busy or harried to stop and chat things through more. Plus, each dish is portioned out for one, so if you were planning on coming alone it wouldn’t make an iota of difference.
There are, of course, many places in London that function around this style of dining; The Barbary (the clue is literally in the name), where you tuck into piles of hummus and smoke-licked seafood and meat while trying unsuccessfully not to bump elbows with your neighbour; Humo where you have a front-row seat to chefs doing things that defy the laws of psychics with food and flames, the food remaining subtly magnificent despite its bolshy cooking method; Kiln, where you don’t mind spending 45 minutes piled into a corner with strangers sipping on a glass of chilled red while you wait for a pew to free up because the crab noodles are so damn good; or Kricket Soho, where I genuinely think two seats at the upstairs bar might just be the best date spot in town.
I mean, the list goes on. It’s a tricky formula to get right, but when you do it doesn’t matter if you’re serving guests a 15-course tasting menu over the course of three hours, or whipping out woodfired turbot in an electrified atmosphere cacophonous with the sound of people having fun, a seat at the counter is suddenly the best place to be. Just please, for Christ’s sake, pick a chair with a foot rest.