There’s a scene in the ’80s movie The Lonely Guy when a solo Steve Martin steps into a restaurant and asks for a table for one. The whole place goes silent, and as Martin is escorted to his seat a spotlight follows him.

That’s the way dining alone feels for some people, judging from an article in Florida’s St. Petersburg Times, “Party of One,” which attempts to reassure solitary diners. Their numbers are up: 9 percent of meals, or about $48 billion worth of the $537 billion total spent eating out in the United States this year, are consumed by the unaccompanied. Lone wolves also eat more quickly (turn those tables!) and are great tippers: 20 percent versus about 15 percent for larger parties.

So for the most part, restaurants should be happy to see these single diners, who empty their pockets and scuttle out briskly. St. Petersburg Times reporter Laura Reiley gathers a quote from Roy’s of Tampa: “We never use the verbiage ‘dining alone tonight?’ or any negative language,” says Robert Snow, Roy’s managing partner.” And at least one San Francisco resturant I know of offers customers a free meal if they’re asked “Just one?” by the hostess.

But customers are still edgy. Psychology professor Bella DePaulo, author of a book on singles, conducted an experiment that proves this point:

To see what others thought of solo diners, she showed shoppers at a mall photographs of people dining alone, then in couples, then in threesomes and foursomes.

‘It was very interesting,’ says DePaulo. ‘We got perceptions that were not at all negative. Some people guessed the (solo diner’s) friends just weren’t available that evening, or that they were a business traveler or that they just wanted some time alone.’

Her findings also reveal that single diners’ feelings of conspicuousness are unfounded: ‘People often think others are paying more attention to them than they actually are.’

I tell this to my husband (who hates when I suddenly burst into loud choruses of “Ghost Busters” or “Bohemian Rhapsody”) all the time!

Need any more convincing that dining alone is kosher? If the Sex and the City ladies can do it, so can you. If you’re still nervous, here are some tips for solo diners from CHOW’s own Helena Echlin.

On an unrelated note, the St. Petersburg Times has a fun snack-food blog featuring two terrific YouTube commercials. You’ve just gotta see the visual puns in the All-Bran ad.

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