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 7.9 million results. On Instagram, the hashtag is at 1.9 million posts (the one for honsul, solo drinking, is at 1.7 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):
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 café 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 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.
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.
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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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.
This story was originally published on Food52.com: This Solo Dining Trend Is Changing The Way People Eat