Table for One

This Solo Dining Trend Is Changing the Way People Eat

What we can learn from 'honbap,' Korea's viral loner culture.

by:
January 25, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin

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):

  1. Eating kimbap or ramen alone
  2. Eating at a cafeteria or food court alone
  3. Eating at a fast food restaurant alone
  4. Eating at a cafe alone
  5. Eating at a Chinese or naengmyeon restaurant alone
  6. Eating at a popular date-night restaurant alone
  7. Eating at a family restaurant alone
  8. Eating at a Korean BBQ restaurant alone
  9. Drinking alone at a bar

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."

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Oh yes, I have eaten in restaurants alone many, many times and the more often I dine solo, the more blissful I find the experience. Why? Well, I really love good, well prepared food and the whole experience of dining out (I mean-wow!-someone is waiting on ME) plus I have ADD. Dining with friends is warm and lovely for the camaraderie, but I find that if I am focusing on my near and dear ones, engaging in interesting conversations and being present with them, I am giving my food short shrift. To circumvent this, I try to arrange to meet friends for happy hour. Sitting at a bar, drinking and enjoying bar bites allows me to enjoy the full experience and to relax. Just last Friday, I made a second trip to a newly opened South Indian restaurant for a late solo lunch. It was frantically busy, but I had the day off and did not have to fret about anyone else's schedule. There was a brief wait to be seated and a time lag between getting the menu and ordering. Again, that was perfectly alright as I had time to really delve into the menu and people watch. Since time was not an issue, my lunch choice was a 15 piece thali meal, served on a banana leaf. When the food arrived, I just sat for a few minutes enjoying the colors, the textures and the scents of all the tiny dishes. It probably took me over an hour to slowly savor and eat everything, mixing a spoonful of sambar with a touch of mango pickle, heavy with asafoetida, dipping a tiny piece of parotta into a dal, then into a curry. Outside time stopped as I sat, ate, tasted and day dreamed about the culture of the food I was eating, what it was like to be an immigrant in this country, how I could reproduce some of these dishes at home and enjoying sound bytes of some of the conversations around me. Servers stopped by on a regular basis to check on me and I felt warm, happy and cared for in addition to being well fed. To end, I ordered a masala chai that came in a beautiful copper cup and some rasmali. Eating the chopped pistachio garnish on it was a meditation. At no time did I feel "bad," lonely, pathetic or odd. It was relaxing to be able to fully concentrate on my food. I think the more a singleton dines out as "party of one," the more freeing and fabulous it feels. Eric, even though I have long been a content single diner, both at home and in restaurants, for almost a decade, your column still empowers me and makes me joyously aware that I am part of a huge, marvelous Tribe. Thank you! : )”
— Whiteantlers
Comment

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.

The stage has been set for a renaissance in solo dining.

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.

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Eating dessert with my new bestie 🦛🧁

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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.


Table for One

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:

The bar is a solo diner's best friend (sometimes)

  • "I prefer to sit at the bar, as I can then choose to engage with others (or not)."
  • "I started dining solo when I traveled for business alone. I hate getting room service so I would seek out nearby restaurants and eat at the bar, bringing something to read with me. I never experienced anything but gracious service, plus it's a nice way to get a bit more local 'flavor' than sticking to the hotel options."
  • "I tried Dirt Candy's solo Valentine's dinner because I'd always wanted to try their food but could never find a vegan-loving person to join, so this was the perfect option. And I ended up making temporary friends with some other people seated at the bar."
  • "I head to the bar for a couple of reasons: 1) It's easy to get a seat if you're just wandering around; 2) Whereas waiters might think you're perpetually waiting on another person, I think bartenders are used to serving people on their own; 3) Usually it's the best people-watching and eavesdropping (I admit it, I creep on people sometimes)."
  • "Everything at restaurants is set up for parties of at least two. When you sit alone, you are literally force to sit across from an empty chair, underlining the fact that you're by yourself. The only single seats are at the bar, implying that you must be there to drink—alone. Which is the only thing more pitied than eating alone."

Being treated like everyone else doesn't go unnoticed

  • "I measure a place's success by how willing they are to accommodate me as a solo diner. When I have a bad experience, I don't ever return. When I have a great one, I typically follow up with an email to an owner or manager detailing how and why my experience was special. Those who get it (and hey, it's not rocket science) deserve praise and gratitude."
  • "Once I had an inadvertent solo experience (which just shows you how good a top restaurant can be). Was waiting for two colleagues and a dinner meeting at a Toronto restaurant. Hadn't expected to be waiting, so had no reading material. Waiter asked what I wanted to read, gave me a choice of magazine genres, and brought the type I asked for. Only at the end of evening did I learn he'd gone out to the nearby convenience store to buy it."
  • "One of my best-ever dining experiences was a solo dinner at Momofuku Ko when I was still in college. A night-of reservation at the counter became available, so I snapped it up and quickly got dressed. The restaurant took such good care of me and the meal never skipped a beat; the freeze-dried foie gras with lychee and (I think) peanut brittle was maybe one of the best things I've ever eaten. I loved getting to just watch the chefs do their thing behind the counter without having to worry about talking to anyone else—except for the cute waiter."

It's only as awkward as you make it

  • "I was traveling for work and got to my hotel late on a weeknight. I wasn't traveling with any co-workers, and friends in town were not available that night. So I went out fully expecting it to be awkward. And it was. But only slightly, and the more I sat there the more I realized it was awkward because I was expecting it to be. By the time I was done, I was enjoying the quiet and the time with my own thoughts, and no one was looking at me like I was a sad weirdo for eating alone."
  • "In college, I was uncomfortable about eating alone at restaurants—especially without a book. I think I got over it when I began working downtown and lunch breaks were full of people eating alone. Then when I moved to New York, I realized literally no one cares. Now that I’m back in Los Angeles, I can still see some nerves from young people, so perhaps it’s a matter of maturity and a personal threshold for making eye contact with strangers. I used to worry about what people would think if they saw me eating alone, if I was lonely or something. Now I’m mostly concerned with how much I look at my phone when I eat by myself."
  • "Eating alone in a public restaurant is another whole new level of fierce, unadulterated confidence."

Have you ever eaten at a restaurant alone? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Nancy
    Nancy
  • Suzanna
    Suzanna
  • zaqary
    zaqary
  • Carlos C. Olaechea
    Carlos C. Olaechea
  • Grace Moon
    Grace Moon
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Eric Kim is the Senior Editor and 'Table for One' columnist at Food52. Formerly the Digital Manager of FoodNetwork.com, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson Kim. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway.

20 Comments

Nancy May 26, 2019
Eric - top review of a new Parisian style restaurant in London. cites NY restaurateur Keith McNally on how he knows a new restaurant is doing ok - when a woman feels comfortable dining there alone. See 2nd para in Daily Mail article.
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/event/article-7062129/The-REAL-Paris-road-Lords.html
 
Suzanna February 10, 2019
I am fm SG. sometimes i eat alone when i feel like it at Restaurant , Hawker Centre , Food Court anywhere ... i love cooking for myself also.
I watch movies , go swimming , shopping , library , tried iFly SG @ Sentosa alone.
I do have a husband and 2 sons but sometimes i prefer Alone time.
However, i never tried Overseas alone ...maybe i am.a scaredly cat 😂😂😂
There's nothing wrong about being alone.
Don't worry , be happy.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 11, 2019
"Don't worry, be happy."

My thoughts exactly, Suzanna.
 
zaqary February 8, 2019
I'm glad that you mentioned Japan. I visited there recently and noticed that most of the restaurants I went to were filled with solo diners and that the seating was usually a bar or a two top. Many places also seemed to focus on the eating experience, not the social aspect, which lends to eating alone.

You're right when you said it's only as awkward as you make it. And the comment about how it's about ...confidence I think is a key thing for solo American diners. You generally have to learn to be okay with being alone, and when you do you can discover a whole new facet of enjoying different actives in your life. When I started traveling alone I learned to determine what places and activities I wanted to share or experience alone, and that there is value to both.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 8, 2019
Indeed. Japan is one of the best cities for solo diners.
 
Nancy February 7, 2019
Eric - here's the opposite to happily eating alone. A bank has just "single-shamed" thousands of people who order single take-out on Valentine's Day. And caused a furore.
https://au.lifestyle.yahoo.com/people-furious-single-shaming-valentines-day-tube-advert-111059470.html
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 8, 2019
So fascinating—and terrible. Thanks for sharing, Nancy.
 
Carlos C. February 6, 2019
I am so used to doing so many things alone. It never seemed like anything weird or lonely to me. Group activities or activities with even 1 other person can be an exercise in compromise...sometimes to the point that the compromises seem to make up the entire experience. What do I do if I want tripe stew but can't find anyone to go with me? Do I abandon my desires for the sake of not eating alone? I know quite a lot of people who would do that, but the idea just seems preposterous to me.

I have to say that whenever I want to seriously enjoy good food and focus on the food I am enjoying, I usually try to eat on my own. I don't have to worry about others' opinions or making conversation. I can focus on the sensory experience and the emotional and cognitive reactions to it.

BTW, I also have found that a lot of people view going to the movies alone as a horribly lonely act. I've always gone to the movies alone and thought nothing of it until I mentioned it to someone, and they were almost sad for me. But again, I just don't like the idea of having to not see the movie I want to see just to please the group.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 6, 2019
I love going to the movies alone.
 
zaqary February 8, 2019
Carlos, you bring up a very good point about compromise. When going out with another for any activity, but especially dining, I try to please or match the other persons desire. This can sometimes be futile or very exhausting. This has led me to dining alone when I want something very specific.

Also, I too very much prefer going to movies alone.
 
Grace M. January 27, 2019
Eric, I immediately became a fan when I came across your "Table for One" column - time and again, I find myself sitting at my kitchen table alone, trying to convert cooking measurements written for parties of four. For the longest time, honbab was my last option, something I'd depressingly revert to if nobody was free to dine with me. But now, I embrace (and even arguably, prefer it!) Especially when I go to Korean restaurants because.... I am VERY greedy about my banchan!!!

Slowly but surely building my way up - currently a level 3 honbabber. I'm really excited to cook some of your "for one" recipes this year!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. January 29, 2019
Oh, the banchan is such a good reason to go to Korean restaurants alone. They gave you the same amount as if you were there with one or three others!
 
Ttrockwood January 26, 2019
I prefer to cook for myself more than go out to dinner alone when i’m at home in nyc, but actually am commenting about a great recent experience.
I had plans to meet a friend at Mother of Pearl in the east village and at the very last minute she had a sick baby and couldn’t make it. I had such a great experience! Beautiful space, great selection of cocktails (and extensive selection of creative alcohol free drinks). Bartender was great, I wasn’t upsold on anything, lingered and wasn’t rushed along. Loved the winter rolls and jackfruit bahn mi (!).
 
Author Comment
Eric K. January 27, 2019
Thanks for the rec, Ttrockwood; sounds delicious.
 
CameronM5 January 25, 2019
I don’t like eating alone at restaurants near me. Then I feel alone, but when I was on vacation alone, I loved it. It felt adventurous and mysterious.

I am shocked by how high the number is of people living alone. Though I went to a party recently and half of the attendees lived alone. Maybe that party was a microcosm of the world?

This is obviously such a huge market, restaurants should be doing more to attract the single diner. Why not keep reading material on hand so some superhero waiter doesn’t have to go buy magazines. This is such an untapped market!

I wonder what you think the 9 levels of eating alone are for Americans...
 
Author Comment
Eric K. January 25, 2019
Untapped market, indeed!

"On next week's episode of Table for One, the 9 levels of eating alone for Americans..."
 
Ella Q. January 25, 2019
This is so fascinating, Eric. I really love dining out alone, especially while traveling. It's such a great way to be present and pay attention to the food!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. January 25, 2019
Thanks, Ella. Well said.
 
Whiteantlers January 25, 2019
Oh yes, I have eaten in restaurants alone many, many times and the more often I dine solo, the more blissful I find the experience. Why? Well, I really love good, well prepared food and the whole experience of dining out (I mean-wow!-someone is waiting on ME) plus I have ADD. Dining with friends is warm and lovely for the camaraderie, but I find that if I am focusing on my near and dear ones, engaging in interesting conversations and being present with them, I am giving my food short shrift. To circumvent this, I try to arrange to meet friends for happy hour. Sitting at a bar, drinking and enjoying bar bites allows me to enjoy the full experience and to relax.

Just last Friday, I made a second trip to a newly opened South Indian restaurant for a late solo lunch. It was frantically busy, but I had the day off and did not have to fret about anyone else's schedule. There was a brief wait to be seated and a time lag between getting the menu and ordering. Again, that was perfectly alright as I had time to really delve into the menu and people watch. Since time was not an issue, my lunch choice was a 15 piece thali meal, served on a banana leaf. When the food arrived, I just sat for a few minutes enjoying the colors, the textures and the scents of all the tiny dishes. It probably took me over an hour to slowly savor and eat everything, mixing a spoonful of sambar with a touch of mango pickle, heavy with asafoetida, dipping a tiny piece of parotta into a dal, then into a curry. Outside time stopped as I sat, ate, tasted and day dreamed about the culture of the food I was eating, what it was like to be an immigrant in this country, how I could reproduce some of these dishes at home and enjoying sound bytes of some of the conversations around me. Servers stopped by on a regular basis to check on me and I felt warm, happy and cared for in addition to being well fed. To end, I ordered a masala chai that came in a beautiful copper cup and some rasmali. Eating the chopped pistachio garnish on it was a meditation. At no time did I feel "bad," lonely, pathetic or odd. It was relaxing to be able to fully concentrate on my food.

I think the more a singleton dines out as "party of one," the more freeing and fabulous it feels.

Eric, even though I have long been a content single diner, both at home and in restaurants, for almost a decade, your column still empowers me and makes me joyously aware that I am part of a huge, marvelous Tribe. Thank you! : )
 
Author Comment
Eric K. January 25, 2019
Tribe is such a good, ironic word for this; that makes me so happy. Thank you, dear.
E