The stage has been set for a renaissance in solo dining.
The South Koreans already have a word for it: honbap. A portmanteau of honja ("alone") and bap ("food"), 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 7.7 million results. On Instagram, the hashtag is at 1.8 million posts (the one for honsul, solo drinking, is at 1.6 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, 30, 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):
- Eating kimbap or ramen alone
- Eating at a cafeteria or food court alone
- Eating at a fast food restaurant alone
- Eating at a café alone
- Eating at a Chinese or naengmyeon restaurant alone
- Eating at a popular date-night restaurant alone
- Eating at a family restaurant alone
- Eating at a Korean BBQ restaurant alone
- 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 kalbi around a burner that's built into a four-top (level 8) or drinking soju with colleagues after work (level 9).
It's telling that in Korea, drinking alone is seen as the highest level of loner status. "Everything at restaurants is set up for parties of at least two," writes in one of my readers. "When you sit alone, you are literally forced 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."
Luckily, due to #honbap and celebrities like Tiffany, the solo diner is becoming a louder voice in the makeup of Korea's social fabric.
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.
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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. According to The Wall Street Journal, OpenTable reported an 80 percent increase in table for one bookings at N.Y.C. restaurants from 2014 to 2018. At the "anti-loneliness" Moomin House Cafe in Tokyo, 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. 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.
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The booths at @ichiranny aren't like anything else in town, @pete_wells writes in his review this week. "When the partitions were shut and the shades were down, I was all by myself. I couldn’t decide if it felt more like a library carrel, a peep show or a confessional. ('My child, how long has it been since you last slurped a noodle?')" His story is through our profile link. (Photo: @benjaminnorman) #🍜
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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?
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It’s official!! We’re so excited to announce that our first Manhattan location is set to open next Wednesday(3/28) at 11AM in Midtown, 132 W 31st St. between 6th & 7th Ave. The countdown begins!! . . #ichiran #ichiranNY #ichiranmidtown #opening #openingsoon #tonkotsu #ramen #ramenfocusbooth #japanese #food #march #2018 #midtown #nyc
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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 couple, the roommates, or the friends hosting Sunday supper.
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, so that we can finally carve out spaces at the table for people like us.
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)."
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."