You're on a business trip. You've worked hard all day, and decide you've earned a decent meal in pleasant surroundings. You wander into a nice-looking seafood restaurant, with windows on to the seafront. It's a Tuesday night, and it's not busy. A waiter greets you at the door, but he's not looking at you. He's looking over your shoulder to see if you're accompanied.
"A table for one?" he asks, with heavy emphasis on the last word. Then he takes you to the back of the room, and seats you in a dingy corner next to the lavatories and the kitchen's swing doors. Fifteen minutes later he brings you your menu. Half-an-hour later, after dancing attendance on a group of boozing businessmen, he takes your order.
After an experience like this, would you bother to eat alone in restaurants?
Restaurants who treat single diners like this are making a big mistake - much bigger than they realise. There is a huge potential market for single diners.
Demographic research says people are increasingly choosing to live alone. There are more than six million people living alone in the UK as a result of higher rates of divorce, later marriages and longer life expectancy.
Market research company Mintel predicts their numbers will increase to eight million by the year 2000. Single men are likely to use restaurants on their own, either because they lack culinary skills, or simply because they have jobs that leave them little time or inclination to cook at home. Women are increasingly falling into the latter category. And that's just those who might want to dine out for pleasure.
There are also a huge number of floating workers, reps and people away from home on business. The English Tourist Board estimates that in 1993 more than 90 million solo trips were taken within the UK by UK residents. All of these people need to be fed. And gone are the days when reps had the budget to treat clients to an evening meal. If they eat out, they usually do it alone.
Is it just a question of bad training? As Peter Godwin, proprietor of Kensington's Brasserie says: "Waiters should be welcoming to anyone who comes in."
Training is probably half the problem - especially at the informal, bistro- or brasserie-type chains that would attract single diners. At the Edinburgh-based Pierre Victoire chain, now nearly 60-strong across the UK, Andrew Simpson, who is in charge of setting up new restaurants, says: "They are encouraged along with everyone else." But the implication is that no special attention is paid to the single diner's needs.
Karen Jones, managing director of Café Rouge owner the Pelican Group, backs the plight of the single diner. "We get a lot of solo people and a lot of solo women. We train our staff to deal with all categories of people at our training school every Monday and Tuesday - and to think about these customers' needs."
Perhaps attitudes are more to do with false assumptions and ignorances, such as:
At La Grillade, a friendly, Parisian-style brasserie in Leeds, owner Guy Martin-Laval serves between four and six lone diners each evening, some regulars, some newcomers. "Whatever they spend, we make sure they don't feel like a rare species."
A single person who spends £10 on his or her meal and gets treated well is good business if they come back every week. In addition, single diners are more likely to eat out during the slow midweek evenings, when there is plenty of capacity. At weekends, they will eat out with friends.
A lot of the difficulties stem from the fact that the restaurant scene in this country has changed so dramatically in the past five or 10 years, while the culture has not. It is not so long ago that the options for eating out in the UK were either fast food, ethnic, or a formal restaurant.
The recession and changing diets and lifestyles have forced restaurateurs to be more flexible, and more innovative.
Laurence Isaacson, deputy chairman and marketing director of Groupe Chez Gérard, says many of his restaurants market themselves to young singles - but not on their own. He raises an obvious point: "It is not a good use of space to fill your restaurant with single diners."
True enough, but the chances of that happening are remote. Those who make single diners welcome - Guy Martin-Laval, Peter Godwin - rarely have more than five or six in at one time. With large restaurants, that is a better "use of space" than empty tables.
With smaller restaurants it is more difficult. Le Gavroche only seats 60 at most. It is still simple enough, says Giraldin, "If the restaurant is busy and I only have a table for four left, then it does not make sense to give it to a single person. But if it is a table for two, no problem."
It is not a new dilemma - solutions have been proposed, especially for hotel restaurants that might have a large population of floating single diners midweek.
The "captain's table" idea, of a mixed collection of single guests hosted by the hotel or restaurant manager, was raised by Jane Dowl, when she became general manager at the new Leeds Marriott hotel two years ago. "It was a good idea," she says. "But there were difficulties with it - mainly how you bill people."
It also doesn't address the fact that many single diners are happy eating on their own, and simply want to be made to feel comfortable and welcome.