I never used to like eating alone in public. It made me self-conscious and uncomfortable. I was embarrassed that I didn’t have anyone to eat with. In many ways, dining out felt as though it was more about social interaction than the food itself. I think my fear came from those cliché high school movies where the new student sits alone at lunch and all the mean kids make fun of him.
In my freshman year at Boston College, I never sat down to a meal at Mac if I didn’t have someone to sit with. Instead, I would walk timidly through the dining hall, grab food, and make my way back to Upper campus so I could eat in my dorm room. My food was usually cold by the time I returned, but it was better than the thought of sitting by myself.
This phobia lasted many years, but all it took was one meal to change my outlook on dining solo. I was in Hong Kong with my mum at the time, and she left me to explore the city while she caught up with friends. That afternoon, I found myself wandering the streets of Hong Kong’s trendy fashion district, Causeway Bay. After indulging in some retail therapy, I began to crave a hearty meal to warm me up on that chilly winter afternoon. I initially thought about grabbing something from a café, but then decided to go look for some traditional Cantonese dim sum.
As I walked along the grungy streets of Causeway Bay, I noticed a sizable crowd gathering outside what appeared to be a Japanese restaurant. I followed suit; if people were waiting outside in the cold, the food was bound to be good.
When I got to the front of the line, the hostess asked, “How many?”
I sheepishly replied, “Just for one.”
She nodded, and gestured for me to follow her as she walked through the restaurant. Since the signage was all in Japanese, I had no idea what I was about to eat. But as soon as I walked in, the aroma of pork-steeped ramen broth was unmistakable. To my surprise, however, there were no tables inside the space… only personal booths.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I had stumbled into one of Japan’s most famous ramen chains, Ichiran. Renowned for its rich tonkotsu pork broth and thin handmaid noodles, Ichiran serves some of the best ramen you can find outside of Japan. Rather than having guests gather at tables together, diners sit at individual “flavour concentration booths” to fully appreciate the quality of the soup.
There is very little human interaction once you get to your seat. I was isolated from all other customers, thanks to the dividers placed on either side of me. In front of my chair, a little window covered by a bamboo screen concealed the inside of the kitchen. At Ichiran, there is no menu. Instead, waiting for me at my booth was an order sheet that let me curate my perfect bowl of ramen. Firm noodles, extra spicy, with sliced pork, ultra rich broth and a soft boiled egg. I pressed the “service” button and seconds later, the bamboo screen was lifted, and two hands appeared. They retrieved my written order, and then the bamboo partition was lowered.
Just minutes later, the screen rose once more, revealing my steaming bowl of ramen. The broth was opaque and cloudy with the noodles neatly arranged on top. A dollop of fiery red chilli paste sat in the middle of the bowl as mounds of scallions, sliced pork shoulder, and a perfectly runny boiled egg completed the dish.
I grabbed my chopsticks and soup-spoon and began mixing the dish together, fusing the brightly-colored chilli paste into the pale broth. Then I began to build the perfect bite: a bit of broth, a little pork, a few noodles, and a chunk of egg. It was pure magic. The soup was silky with just the right amount of spice. The noodles were perfectly al dente with the right amount of chew. The pork was tender and the egg was perfectly cooked. I had never tasted ramen like this before. It was the perfect bowl.
Before I knew it, I had eaten all the noodles and barely made a dent in the broth. Luckily, at Ichiran you can order more of anything as you go. I filled out another order sheet, requesting more noodles, and a second egg. I pressed the “service” button and had a new bowl of noodles and an egg at my table in a matter of seconds.
Prior to dining at Ichiran, I had never seen the bottom of a ramen bowl. I could never finish my servings because they were always too rich or filling. But the ramen there is perfectly balanced, and for the first time, I reached the bowl’s ceramic floor. I even debated ordering another round, but decided on the green tea ice cream for dessert instead.
Throughout my entire dining experience at Ichiran, I never felt uncomfortable or embarrassed. The anti-social dining concept took away the shame I felt from eating alone. With self-pity removed, I was able to focus my attention entirely toward what I was eating, as opposed to wondering what other people were thinking of me. By eliminating all social interaction, there were no distractions when I sat down for my meal. The only focus was the bowl in front of me. I tasted flavours I wouldn’t normally notice, and appreciated the quality of the ingredients. Throughout the meal I refrained from using my phone, just so I could sit with my thoughts and reflect.
Although the social aspect of dining out is still what appeals to me most, my experience at Ichiran allowed me to embrace the idea of eating out alone. I realized I shouldn’t be concerned with how other people regard me in this setting. I now have no issue sitting alone on campus and eating lunch. I almost think of it as a meditative experience. I put in my headphones, listen to music, and enjoy my meal. It helps me clear my mind and reset for the day ahead.
Photo by Eater NY