What we can learn from 'honbap,' Korea's viral loner culture.
Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.
The stage has been set for a renaissance in solo dining. The South Koreans already have a word for it: honbap. A portmanteau of “alone” (honja) and “food” (bap), honbap is part of a larger loner trend that’s overtaken Korea in the last two to three years, as more and more people are choosing to live alone, eat alone, and even drink alone. A Google search for "혼밥" (honbap) yields 7.3 million results. On Instagram, the hashtag is at 1.5 million posts (the one for honsul, solo drinking, is at 1.3 million). It’s a major cultural shift for a nation that has, until 2017—when honbap really began to flourish—prioritized the collective over the individual.
"Ultimately, it’s about taking time for yourself," Monica Kim writes in a Vogue profile of model Ahreum Ahn. "It’s about letting go of society’s pressures—to get married by a certain age, to work for a steady salary, to never ask questions—and caring less what others think."
Even former Girls’ Generation member Tiffany Young, 29, honbapped on national Korean television on many an occasion over the years, sparking interest in the trend and making it cool. Eating alone is inevitable for busy K-pop megastars like Tiffany, whose never-ending schedule (making TV appearances, recording in the studio, and touring the world) leaves little room for the communal sit-down dinner with family and friends. In one of my favorite YouTube clips titled “Tiffany Eats Ramen Alone!”, she outlines honbap like a video game with nine levels (from beginner to expert):
Some of these Korean culturalisms may apply less to us in the United States, like the convenience-store kimbap lunch break (level 1) or the naengmyeon-specific outing (level 5). But the idea here is that eating alone gets harder as the scenarios become more quintessentially group-oriented, like grilling galbi around a burner that's built into a four-top (level 8) or drinking soju with colleagues after work (level 9). It's also telling that in Korea, drinking alone is seen as the highest level of loner status, whereas in America, the bar is the first place solo patrons flock to because it's often the only true table for one in the house (and the least awkward to endure).
In a 2017 Quartz report, Isabella Steger and Soo Kyung Jung attribute this rise of "single's awareness" dining to trends in the South Korean home. "According to government statistics," Steger and Jung write, "single-person households are now the dominant type of household in Korea, making up over 27 percent of households as of 2015, similar to the level in the U.S., but a particularly dramatic change for a country where just a decade ago four-person households formed the largest share."
It makes sense, then, that this shift in the private space would soon bleed into the public. More and more food services in Korea are providing single-person menu options beyond burgers and fries, marketing to solo diners who need quick but substantial knife-and-fork meals before heading back to their busy, overworked lives. Seoul in particular is experiencing an influx of honbap-friendly restaurants: hotpot, ramen, and Korean barbecue, otherwise communal eating opportunities that have in recent years been scaled down and redesigned specifically for parties of one.
At Dokgojin, a Korean barbecue restaurant in Bucheon (a satellite city of Seoul), you never have to worry about being the lone diner taking over an entire four-top. The "one-person eatery" is filled with rows and rows of individual booths, each equipped with a television, a portable butane gas stove, and a menu of single-portion meats you can grill yourself while watching the game.
These kinds of cubicles—true tables for one—are becoming common fixtures in other fast-paced urban cities as well, like New York and Tokyo. At the "anti-loneliness" Moomin House Cafe in Japan, every patron gets a doll (or a "Moomin") to keep them company during their stay.
I still remember how it felt in 2016, when my brother and I traveled to Tokyo and had dinner at Ichiran, arguably Japan's most popular ramen chain. We preordered our food on an arcade game–like slot machine perched outside the restaurant, inserting coins and pressing buttons, and were then led down a dark and narrow path to two booths with partitions between them.
"What are we—taking the SATs?" my brother joked.
"Shh!" I barked back.
I'll never forget the sensation of sitting there quietly, waiting for a pair of disembodied hands to reach out from behind the veil to hand me one of the most perfect bowls of noodles I'd ever had. When the chain made its way to Williamsburg in 2016, introducing private booth dining to America, Pete Wells in his New York Times review described the sensation of eating in one of these stalls "like a library carrel, a peep show or a confessional."
Ultimately, these physical changes in public dining spaces have helped not only to normalize the act of breaking bread with the self, but to make it fashionable as well. With the slow death of the smaller dining table (considered a waste of space and a missed profit opportunity for businesses), I can't help but wonder: Can it be, that after all these years, solo dining is finally on its way in?
I’ve always felt that some of the best stories come from those quiet moments when we find ourselves alone at the table, whether we're dining in or dining out. But when it comes to talking about it, we seem to paint the solo diner's experience with broad strokes, i.e. sad or lonely. It doesn't help that food magazines and publications have prioritized recipes for four, six, and eight—if not for the nuclear family, then for the young couple, the roommates, or the friends hosting Sunday supper. Nothing says it better than this New Yorker parody of the FoodNetwork.com recipe review:
The recipe claims to serve six to eight, but I live alone in a studio apartment with only a mini fridge, so leftovers aren't an option. And every time I try to reduce the size of a recipe, it just doesn't come out right. Don't get me wrong, Ina Garten—I am completely fine with being a forty-nine-year-old assistant funeral director who has only ever purchased twin sheets...But why don't you try dividing 1⁄4 teaspoon of fleur de sel by eight? Do you think I just happen to own an electron microscope? Let me check. Nope! So, this time, I just decided to make the whole recipe. I set the table for six, with placemats and candles and everything. Then I dressed my ferrets up as famous authors (Marcel Proust, Sylvia Plath, etc.) and let them eat at the table. We had a very nice evening, but next time I might add a packet of onion-soup mix.
Food should bring people together, they say. To talk about dining as if it's anything other than a communal matter means to step into the murky territory of solitude, loneliness, and on the furthest end of the spectrum, depression. But this ignores the reality of a large subsection of people who find themselves alone at the end of the day.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 51.4 percent of our country is legally single (either widowed, divorced, separated, never married, or married but "spouse absent"), and more than a quarter of households today consist of one person, an increase from 13 percent in 1960. In Japan, that rate is even higher at 30 percent.
"Today our species has about 200,000 years of experience with collective living, and only about fifty or sixty years with our experiment in going solo on a massive scale," American sociologist Eric Klinenberg writes in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. It's no surprise, then, that solo dining trends like honbap are just now beginning to surface, especially with the explosive rise of social media (which connects us all virtually, and emotionally, even when we're physically alone).
Bottom line: Solo dining isn't sad. In fact, it's the reality of our present. Thankfully restaurant culture—and the rise of honbap—is starting to catch up to this reality. But it's up to us singletons to make ourselves visible and heard, to start talking about our experiences as solo diners out loud, so that we can finally carve out a space for ourselves at the table.
To learn more about how others are honbapping around the world, I turned to the Food52 community to ask the question, “Do you ever eat at restaurants alone?”
Here are some patterns I noticed: