Ichiran Ramen, which just opened its first U.S. location in Brooklyn, is something like Japan’s Waffle House. Open 24 hours a day, this chain of ramen shops offers diners a delicious, if factory-made, bowl of porky tonkotsu broth long after the Tokyo subway stops running.
But its most unique selling point is what the company calls its Flavor Concentration Booths. Your ramen is served, not at a counter, but within a personal cubicle, disturbed through minimal contact with your server. The sales pitch is that this allows you to focus on the experience of the ramen. However, it’s a stealthy bit of experience design, too. Ichiran is the perfect destination for a self-conscious solo diner.
When I ask Brian Ashcraft, a friend, former colleague, and published cultural expert who lives in Japan what he thinks of Ichiran, he recognizes the gimmick at play. After all, ramen shops have shared counters by design, he points out, and most people are used to the “together alone” experience that is silent slurping (or just sitting on your laptop at the local Starbucks). No doubt, he’s right. But in a world in which more and more people go out to eat by themselves, Ichiran may be onto something. Its implicit message is less about escaping strangers, than celebrating the sensation that is eating out as a party of one: It can feel great to be alone.