A customer dines alone at the Japanese ramen chain Ichi Men in Sinchon, Seoul. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
There is something about dining out alone that just seems so daunting. Being escorted by the matre d’ through a crowded restaurant and being taunted with the sounds of laughter and conversation, all the while having random diners flash a gaze of pity or disbelief ― as though solo diners should be presented with a medal of bravery for their courage in allowing themselves to be seen eating alone. To some, dining out by oneself is right up there in terms of social faux pas with going stag to the movies or a nightclub.
But who made these rules? Why can’t a night out for good food be done unaccompanied?
Whether someone is a traveling alone, pressed for time or simply in the mood for a leisurely bite alone, Seoul does have a handful of convenient dining establishments geared toward those looking to be seated at a table for one.
A hankering for meat
Located in the alleyways of the bustling Gangnam district, First Story is a place to go for those looking for more than just greasy fast food to go ― and who are in the mood for a hearty meal of meat, meat and more meat.
While many local barbecue establishments require that customers order at least enough meat for two, the not-so-ordinary First Story is pioneering in that solo diners are more than welcome to grill up meat for one.
Inspired by Japanese sushi-go-round bars ― where sushi plates are placed on conveyor belts so customers can simply grab the dishes that appeal to them most ― First Story applies this same concept, only with slices of meat instead of sushi.
A diner enjoys a meal alone at First Story restaurant in Gangnam, Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
“The concept behind the restaurant is to give people the option of not only being able to have Korean barbecue when they’re dining alone, but also to give customers the option of trying a wide variety of different beef cuts,” said restaurant owner Sean Seo.
For customers who come alone, taking a seat at the bar will assuredly make one’s mouth begin to water at the view of finely cut steak slices rotating in front of the table. Diners are not only given a few small side dishes to enjoy with their meal, but also their own personal stone grill, where one can grab any of the beef plates off the conveyor belt and grill it up right at the bar.
“We get a lot of foreign customers, those who are traveling or on a business trip alone, who enjoy coming in and being able to try all sorts of Korean barbecue,” said Seo. “As for locals, most appear to be quite hesitant to come alone, so the ones that do are the ones that just really love eating meat.”
“Although I think it is obviously important socially to go out and have fun while dining out with your friends or loved ones, I do also think that there should still be more options available for those wish to eat out by themselves.”Tap, pay, bon apptit
For those who are looking for a bit more privacy and seclusion while dining out alone, Ichi Men does dining without any bells or whistles. The popular Japanese franchise restaurant with several locations around Seoul offers a unique, judgment-free, solo dining-out atmosphere.
At Ichi Men in the Sinchon area, customers who enter are greeted by nothing but drawn-down curtains sectioned off into three separate areas; and to the left of the door, a large, ATM-looking restaurant vending machine to place one’s order. On this large machine is a touch screen displaying the concise menu of various Japanese-style dishes including ramen, rice and pork cutlets ranging from 6,500 won to 8,000 won. Diners simply select a dish, pay and pick up the printed receipt of their meal selection. Then, customers can move to the secluded dining areas, where long tables are separated by dividers so eaters can privately enjoy their meal.
“I think one of the best things about this place is that when you come in here, you don’t have to deal with people staring at you because you are eating alone,” said Lee Hyun-seung, manager of Ichi Men’s Sinchon branch.
This Ichi Men branch is located right next to the Hyundai Department Store in Sinchon, an area that is bursting with local college students and business folks alike. Those who find themselves on their own during lunch or dinnertime may also find themselves struggling to locate a quiet place to sit down and grab a nice meal that is not served in a caf or fast-food joint.
“There are not a lot of places in Seoul that really cater to people who just want to go out and eat alone. And the ones that do tend to make you feel awkward for eating out on your own,” said Lee. “The atmosphere here is both private and comfortable. People can just come in and enjoy an affordable meal without having to feel awkward for being by themselves.”
Although the ambience is reminiscent of a computer desk area at the library, the table dividers can be easily removed and set aside for communal dining.
“Most of our customers come here to have a nice meal on their own. However, you can still come here and enjoy eating with a friend,” he said.
With the steady rise of establishments that are loosening the reins when it comes to welcoming lone diners, those who wish to wave their independence flags high or remain off the radar should no longer feel the need to jump through hurdles to avoid being seen as a social pariah when dining out alone.Suggestions for going solo
Gangnam-gu, Yeoksam-dong 811-3, Seoul 070-4190-8091
●Ichi Men (Sinchon branch)
Seodaemun-gu, Changchun-dong, 72-1, Seoul 02-333-9565
Gangnam-gu, Samseong 1-dong, 152-9, Seoul 02-538-7114 (Serves Japanese traditional shabu noodle soup)
●Jane’s Picky Pizza
Gangnam-gu, Shinsa-dong, 547-5, Seoul 02-542-5354 (Serves Italian-style thin crust pizzas)
Gangnam-gu, Samseong-dong, 159,
COEX Convention Center, Seoul 02-558-7730 (Serves Japanese-style steak meals and bibimbap)
By Julie Jackson (firstname.lastname@example.org