A few bites and slurps into my bowl of ramen at the recently opened Ichiran in Bushwick, Brooklyn, it occurred to me that I was enjoying it more than any bowl of ramen I’d ever eaten Stateside. This, I assure you, is not a later rumination placed here merely for the sake of narrative drive. I genuinely wondered, while eating, whether it was honestly and empirically the best bowl of ramen I’d ever had outside of Japan. Or whether, instead, I was truly tasting ramen in a way I’d never been able to before, courtesy of the restaurant’s solo-dining “flavor concentration booths,” as Ichiran refers to them. If the latter, though, it was from a combination of factors not alluded to by the corporate PR team.
I’d known the basic premise going in: Two factors set the Japan-based chain apart from other noodle joints. The first is that they offer only one kind of ramen: tonkotsu, or pork-bone broth, served with minimal toppings. Which sounds super-restrictive until you’re confronted with the number of incremental possibilities for customizing the ramen. I’d never chosen the strength (three options) or richness (five options) of my broth, nor the firmness (five choices) of my noodles. I’d never before been asked just how much garlic I wanted (six options), or whether I might like extra scallions.
The second is the solo-dining booth concept. In Ichiran’s other locations, all of the seating is in the format of what the company calls “flavor concentration booths.” In the Brooklyn location, there are 30 such seats, plus another 50 at “normal” tables in a different room. These booths feel like library study carrels: You sit on a stool in front of a wooden space, partitioned with hinged dividers separating you from the diners on either side of you; in front, a bamboo curtain can be raised or lowered by your server. You order silently, by circling choices on a paper form, and summon service by pressing a button. These booths don’t actually concentrate the flavor of the ramen; it’s not like they’re meant to prevent drafts from spriting away the scent of the broth (although, actually, they probably do). The name comes, I’m told by the restaurant’s marketing manager, from the intent to minimize distractions so you can concentrate with all your senses on the food.
Ichiran is not a luxury dining experience. As others have noted, the ramen is delicious. But the booths are unattractively minimalist; they’re of simple wood construction and plastered with posters and signs and instruction booklets. I’m told that in Japan, most Ichiran diners are in and out in 20 minutes; I took a relatively leisurely 25. And it’s not cheap: A standard bowl with no add-ins goes for nearly $19, which includes service but not tax. Your check is likely to exceed $30 a person once you’ve added in an extra serving of noodles (recommended), any add-ins (an extra clove of garlic runs $1.90; mushrooms, $2.90, etc), and matcha, or a beer, or a matcha-flavored beer, which is actually a thing you can order there (I suggest you don’t). That figure seems high for a meal that’s about as short and as visually appealing as a trip to your national fast-food outlet of choice.
As the travel industry started noting a decade ago, however—once every hotel bed started sporting 800-thread-count sheets—the new luxury is service. Here, the luxury is the ability to abandon one’s self-consciousness while eating a food that doesn’t hold up well to delivery. The luxury is the lack of stress.
Dining While Female
I write about food and drinks for a living, which means that I dine and drink out frequently—and usually solo. Yet I’ve never felt truly comfortable walking into a restaurant or bar and sitting alone.
As every woman can relate, my worries are partly practical: it’s virtually guaranteed that any woman sitting by herself at a bar or restaurant will, over the course of an evening, be approached by a man. It’s an inherently stressful situation: Men often get belligerent or even violent when rejected, so conveying disinterest requires a diplomacy I often just don’t have the energy to summon.
And they’re partly due to my own neurotic self-consciousness. I don’t like imagining that others think I’m friendless just because I’m on my own. Even worse than being judged for dining solo is being judged for dining the “wrong way.” Ramen, specifically, presents its own challenges. It’s the one food item that I truly believe is impossible to eat with any modicum of propriety—there’s no way to get those noodles into your mouth without performing some sort of massive dining faux pas. Solo, I sit there convinced that the waitstaff must all be in on some secret to eating it politely, and are judging me for not knowing whatever that secret is. It’s even worse when I’m eating ramen with someone. Want to freak me out? Take me for ramen on an early date, one where I’m still trying to impress you, and ask me to use chopsticks to slurp up long noodles while trying to make polite and engaged conversation. It’s a situation bound to result either in awkwardly stilted chitchat or me distractedly flinging broth all over my white cashmere sweater.
And then there’s the matter of ordering kae-dama, essentially a second helping of noodles. In Japan, it’s basically assumed that men will order kae-dama—and it’s done by shouting gruffly at servers. But it’s taboo for women to order it there; to do so would be begging for a public shaming. It’s a problem here in the U.S., too: I’m a woman with an appetite, and I’ve often suffered the unsubtly raised eyebrows of a server who thinks I’ve overordered. I’ve dealt with the embarrassment of a stranger loudly and accusatorily calling me out for ordering more than he thought I should have. I’ve never summoned the courage to ask for kae-dama, even when I’ve desperately wanted some.
These are dining dilemmas that are unique to women. We’re generally the ones obligated to carry conversations. We’re judged for dining solo. We’re scrutinized more closely for food faux pas—whether it be ordering more than men think we should, or being slightly messy as we eat. We’re the ones who have to fight off the advances of overly “friendly” fellow diners. Food is a feminist issue. Ichiran, by removing verbal interactions and prying eyes, has made dining as egalitarian an experience as it can possibly be.
Solutions, By Design
By design, Ichiran has alleviated every single one of these concerns. Not only is everyone there eating solo, but in theory you could eat your entire meal without interacting with another person. You seat yourself. You never see your server above her wrists or hipbones. Even if you’re there with someone, dining next to them, the dividers between booths prevent conversation while eating. (You could retract them, but that would defeat the purpose of being there, no?) There’s no mandate for making conversation; in fact, it’s strongly discouraged. There’s no fending off an overly friendly fellow diner.
There can be no judging eyes if there are literally no other eyes—belonging either to customers or staff—on you. There’s no way anyone can view you as you eat, and the utter lack of self-consciousness as you shovel noodles into your mouth allows you to focus on their flavor, rather than on the action of eating.
There are essentially no distractions. You are, as Ichiran intended, concentrating your attention on your food. As happens when people lose a sense, their others become more sensitive to compensate, so too happens here—when there’s nothing else to look at or listen to, your senses of smell and taste kick things up a notch. The broth’s flavors seem more vibrant; the textures more differentiated.
And you’re free to eat. By design, no one but your server will know how much food you’ve ordered. If in Japan it’s taboo for women to order kae-dama, at Ichiran it’s assumed that everyone will want it. I was told by the marketing manager that the silent ordering method was developed specifically so women would feel comfortable ordering as much as they would like.
Not long after my visit, New York Times critic Pete Wells published his review of Ichiran. The TL/DR: He liked it. I felt validated—the ramen is, in fact, likely among the best I’ve had! My opinion was probably at least partially due to my somewhat-enforced attentiveness, yes, but at least I was attentive to the right ramen. But reading his review crystallized a thought in my mind: It’s not for the delicious broth or the fresh noodles that I’d return to that desolate stretch of Bushwick—I can get a tasty bowl of noodles elsewhere for less travel time. I do, however, look forward to returning to Ichiran for the stress-free dining experience. For a woman in New York City, that’s a luxury of the rarest kind.