The Origins—and Appeal—of Eating Ramen in Solitude

October 25, 2016

I don’t quite know anyone who has reacted positively to the New York advertising of Seamless, the food delivery startup that emerged from the wellspring of similarly "disruptive" companies in Silicon Valley, a region also known as not-New-York. "Nothing ruins a good meal like other New Yorkers,“ one reads. ”Satisfy your craving for zero human contact,” another claims. "Over 8 million people in New York City and we help you avoid them all."

These ads have been praised in some corners for their apparent insight into the perceived pulse of New Yorkers—namely, the shared desire to minimize human interaction. They strike me as being in terribly poor taste. Seamless has gone about noting the gradual ennui of New Yorkers in a rather dunderheaded way, conflating an understandable desire for solitude with abject misanthropy.

Long before this misjudgment of solo dining's pleasures—and its occasional necessity in urban settings, conducive to making one grow weary of human contact—came Ichiran. The Japanese ramen chain began in 1960 in the city of Fukuoka, where the Ichiran honten, its flagship store, still exists. Ichiran claims to be the first restaurant "designed to reduce or eliminate interaction with people," and this comes through in the purposeful geography of each of its restaurants. The restaurant is known for its aji shuchu, or partition-flanked "flavor concentration booths" that are cordoned off, self-contained desks meant to dedicate a diner's focus on the bowl of ramen in front of them.

Last week, Ichiran opened its first outpost outside of East Asia—specifically on the border of East Williamsburg and Bushwick in Brooklyn, New York. (Ichiran has 61 locations; 59 are in Japan, and one, in 2013, opened in Hong Kong.) The opening of the establishment in Brooklyn has provoked quite a lot of breathless fanfare. Consider the highly combustible combination of two elements that, coupled, are absolute catnip for New Yorkers—reveling in solitude, and an appetite for ramen that many New Yorkers have steadily developed over the years.

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Ichiran's opening in New York has been a decade coming—after a false start a few years back in Greenpoint, the chain has at long last realized its fantasies of global expansion. Ichiran's Brooklyn outpost, an 82-seat establishment, opened in the area due to its proximity to a large factory ideal for manufacturing ramen. The company has brought key specialists from Japan on work visas to ensure that the spirit of the dining experience itself resembles the Japanese original as much as possible.

At Ichiran, each booth is outfitted with a privacy bamboo curtain and call button. Orders, filled out on a piece of supplied pad of paper, are delivered by a disembodied pair of hands within 15 seconds. The restaurant serves one kind of ramen—tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen—with a base price of $16; the tip is included, a nod to the human labor that the experience of dining does its best to make invisible, bringing the minimum total of a given dish to $18.90. Transactions are wordless and efficient, predicated on a basic respect for the service involved.

In some quarters—certainly beyond the universe of food media, where this practice has drawn praise for years—there's still a certain stigmatization of eating alone in a city. If you do so, you risk being perceived as a miser or a freak by the larger public. This habit has not quite been normalized in the same way that, say, drinking alone has, though it's certainly getting there, as evidenced by the opening of a restaurant like Ichiran in the States. I'm glad this is becoming less socially aberrant behavior. I find it near impossible to raise my chest voice above the clamor of people in a restaurant; this is an exhausting process, and I would rather eat in solace, without the fear that other patrons are looking at me as if I were an endangered specimen. If Ichiran popularizes this unspoken desire many New Yorkers harbor to eat alone, I hope it is for the right reasons that keep the beauty of the restaurant's foundational philosophy intact. Misanthropy has become a rather sexy second skin for recent transplants to adopt, as evidenced by advertising like Seamless', but it's distinct from the need for solitude.

Ichiran understands this separation. Ichiran's aiji shuchu are focused on detaching the dining experience from other sensory distractions and re-centering it on the food itself. Unless you have unusual reserves of patience, elemental to living in a city is an understandable tendency to crave spells of isolation—a reprieve from the innate stimulation of stepping outside. Seamless speaks to its imagined public with the assumption that we hate people, and with the belief that we need to have our sense of entitlement affirmed. Ichiran speaks to us with the more charitable idea that, perhaps, we just love food, and sometimes we need to be alone with it.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.