Table for One

I often eat lunch alone. I’ve have been married to the same person for over forty years and we eat together every night. But whether I’m at work or at home in the middle of the day, I’m likely to eat alone. I never thought it was odd to eat by myself in a restaurant at lunch. Certainly there were plenty of other solo diners around me. It seems like an effective way to eat and get back to work.

Eating with another person has its place: more elaborate preparations, more time spent together, good conversation, no diversions from media, and ultimately more to clean up. Eating alone also had its place: a shorter time from start to finish, a relaxing silence where one can focus on the food, an embrace of the diversions offered by media, and a quick clean up. Eating in company is work. Eating alone is less work. Both can be enjoyable.

I was reminded of these facts while reading a recent post from Eric Kim, a senior editor at the Food 52 website. His article, This Solo Dining Trend is Changing the Way People Eat, highlights a growing food movement in South Korea, honbap, that emphasizes eating alone in public. Public dining has generally been the domain of pairs or groups of eaters. Solo eaters often feel exposed and perhaps even stigmatized. The honbap movement aims to make solo dining a positive experience. It has influenced both diners’ behaviors, menus and restaurant design. In the U.S., this is a practice that always had followers, whether of necessity or by choice. One could argue that the restaurant bar affords a “table for one” without a reservation, and without judgement. The bar menu has all the elements of single dining in both portion and price.

Some restaurants are already opening their dining rooms to singles, recognizing that sitting at the bar is not always convenient or comfortable. Serving a single customer, diligently and caringly, is still rare enough that doing so will almost certainly guarantee a return visit.

My interest with this trend was sparked by another point in Kim’s post. An important influence on Korean social media, and former K-Pop Girls Generation singer, Tiffany Young, has embraced and popularized honbap. She did so by posting a video of eating ramen by herself on YouTube. In that post she outlines a series of increasingly challenging honbap situations, urging others to follow her lead in eating alone in public places that are considered less welcoming to solo diners. Here is her list:

  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

Kim points out that many of these situations are Korean specific, but it doesnt take much effort to insert the U.S. equivalent of a naengmyeon (pizza instead of noodles) or a Korean BBQ (fine dining). Similarly, Americans may be more comfortable drinking alone at a bar. We should reorder Young’s levels as well, switching 1 and 3 perhaps, or 6 and 7. An American list, then, for climbing the ladder of solo dining might look like this:

  1. Eating from a food truck alone
  2. Eating in a fast food restaurant alone
  3. Eating in a cafeteria or food court alone
  4. Eating in a coffee house or cafe alone
  5. Drinking alone at a bar
  6. Eating in an ethnic restaurant alone
  7. Eating in a family restaurant alone
  8. Eating in white table cloth restaurant alone
  9. Eating at a popular date-night restaurant alone
  10. Eating at a high-end, fine dining restaurant alone

I don’t know what prize you would win if you actually accomplished these ten solo dining experiences. Maybe it would only be the satisfaction of knowing that you successfully participated in this new food movement. Or, maybe you would discover an approach to tasting food that was more mindful. Andrea Camilleri’s popular detective hero, Commissario Montalbano, always insists on eating alone, or if that is unavoidable, at least eating in silence. It remains to be seen if this food practice will take hold among American diners.

2 thoughts on “Table for One

  1. Hmm….This explains why it’s so hard to make lunch plans with you. 🙂 All kidding aside: I’ll out myself here and admit that I, too, prefer to eat alone at lunchtime (most days). It’s because it’s the one time segment of an otherwise paced-and-promised day when I’m able to be fully mindful of what’s collecting in my head and needs to get processed. When I eat lunch, I don’t read email or look at the ‘Net. Instead, I sit and muse. Mind you, at any moment I could be meal planning for the evening or pondering entropy–I never know where my mind will take me. That’s the beauty of it. I do the same when I’m traveling alone–I eat in public places and watch people, let my mind wander, etc. Over the years, when dining alone, I’ve had waiters at finer establishments try to seat me in a corner, assuming I don’t want to be seen for some reason or another. I always ask for a less-isolated table–so I can feel part of things yet removed sufficiently for journeying to my mind palace (which always seems to be overly cluttered and in need of Marie Kondo). Enjoy your lunch today, Bob!

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  2. Hi Professor,

    I enjoyed this blog post. I too eat alone on a regular weekly basis, not daily but scattered throughout the week. It’s not my intention but it’s what happens naturally because I’m always on the go. I don’t mind it at all. Especially if it’s good food, then I find it quite peaceful.

    – Julian from HON 207

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