New fad of eating a comforting meal alone

Diantha Chong
Social eating in Shanghai has changed. Eating alone is kind of a new norm.
Diantha Chong

In traditional Chinese culture, eating is a communal activity as it is a social form of interaction between family and friends. However, in recent years, following in the footsteps of other fast-pace urban societies like Japan, social eating in Shanghai has changed. Eating alone is kind of a new norm in Shanghai.

Originating from Japan, a country that had grappled with the concept of isolation for years, eating alone is not a strange concept to the Japanese. Japan’s experiences with isolation started in the 1990s when it started facing economic stagnation that resulted in changing family structures, falling birth rates, an aging society and the increasing number of single-person households.

In 2015, the average Japanese household size is 2.39 compared to 2.83 in 1995. A similar trend can be seen happening in Shanghai.

According to Shanghai government’s yearly statistics, the average Chinese household size in Shanghai in 2017 is 2.66 as compared to 1997 when it was 2.83.

As the concept of eating alone becomes more popular, restaurant chains in Japan such as “Ichiran Ramen” known for their tonkotsu (pork-based broth) ramen began jumping in on the trend for solo diners. Ichiran Ramen marketed the concept of “flavor concentration” which encourages customers to dine alone and focus on the bowl of noodles in front of them. Ichiran Ramen’s solo dining concept helped to embrace other concepts of solo dining such as conveyor sushi belts and counter seating arrangements where social interactions are kept to a minimal. It is like having a private moment in a public setting.

New fad of eating a comforting meal alone
Diantha Chong

For many young Chinese adults, eating in solitude does not mean one is lonely, rather spending time alone is a respite to their busy lives.

Shanghai’s Culture of Eating Alone

In Shanghai, scenes of individuals sitting separately at an eatery silently scrolling through their phones is becoming more ubiquitous. In fact, many Chinese young adults prefer to eat alone. The hashtag yirenshi, also known as “solo eating,” has generated more than 700 million hashtag reads and over 381,000 discussion posts on Sina Weibo micro-blogging platform.

Some Chinese young adults prefer to eat alone because it is “hassle-free” and “convenient.” According to 21-year-old college student Mu Yi, spending time alone denotes freedom because you don’t have to socialize and accommodate to others.

“I don’t feel lonely because I can entertain myself with things I like to do. I don’t want to impose on my friends to hang out together because we are all so busy with our own lives,” Mu said.

Something that used to be stigmatized and frowned upon is now widely accepted in Shanghai as more restaurants are catering to solo diners. Even food delivery services such as Meituan or Eleme are catering to the rapidly growing industry of customers eating alone. Data has shown that about 65 percent of takeout orders are from single customers.

For many young Chinese adults, eating in solitude does not mean one is lonely, rather many feel the time alone is a respite to their busy lives.

So how is this phenomenon changing Shanghai’s food retail scene? According to Zhang Dichen, 22, “it is not difficult to find a restaurant that accepts solo diners in Shanghai. However, some restaurants force you to sit with strangers and I find that very uncomfortable,” said the sophomore majoring in finance.

For 20-year-old Chen Qing, eating alone is difficult as the “Chinese culture of ordering food usually requires five or more people because dishes come in big portions.” She prefers to go for “Western cuisine or fast-food restaurants” that provide food in smaller portions. With the rising number of solo diners, more restaurants are catering to the growing market by offering smaller food servings and more privacy in seating arrangements. 

New fad of eating a comforting meal alone
Diantha Chong

Japanese-style barbecue, known as yakiniku

Japanese Yakiniku & Sukiyaki Restaurant

Craving barbecue meat or a nice hotpot but feel out of place eating it alone? You can now indulge in your guilty pleasure alone at Japanese Yakiniku & Sukiyaki Restaurant. As seen on popular Netflix show “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories,” Japanese pioneered the art of eating “hotpot for one.”

Located on Nanjing Road E., Japanese Yakiniku & Sukiyaki Restaurant offers diners Japanese-style barbecue, known as yakiniku or Japanese-style hotpot. To start off your Japanese barbecue or hotpot meal, you can choose your favorite cut and type of meat such as beef ribs, pork belly, or if you are feeling adventurous, beef tongue. Alternatively, you can choose their speciality set meals which offer 150g of beef ribs (48 yuan/US$6.81), beef rice (38 yuan) or a sukiyaki hotpot set (58 yuan).

Indulge in the crisp barbecue meat and you can top it off with your favorite sauce condiments such as yuzu sauce or garlic provided at every individual seating.

The dimly lit restaurant emulates a typical Japanese barbecue restaurant with counter-style seating and individual barbecue grill pans specially catered for the solo diner.

Opening hours: 11am-10pm

Tele: 6333-1758

Address: 800 Nanjing Rd E.

Average price: 80 yuan 

Ramen David

Opened by celebrity-turned-chef David Ito, Ramen David sits on a quiet street behind Nanjing Road W.

Ramen David embodies the charm of an authentic small Japanese ramen shop, with red lanterns hanging on the ceilings and bar seating arrangements. It is ideal spot for diners looking for a quick comforting solo meal.

You can select three different ramen flavors such as tonkotsu (pork-based ramen), chicken shoyu (soy-sauce ramen) or chicken shio (sea salt) ramen. The highlight of the tonkotsu shoyu ramen (48 yuan) is its rich and flavorful broth. If you prefer a spicier version of the ramen, you can order the spicy tonkotsu ramen (48 yuan). If the meal feels heavy, you can cleanse your palate with a nice frozen Asahi beer (25 yuan) or choya umeshu plum wine (38 yuan).

Opening hours: 11am-10pm

Tel: 1361-1848-244

Address: 288 Fengxian Rd

Average price: 68 yuan

New fad of eating a comforting meal alone
Diantha Chong

A buffet-style hotpot

Yi Xiao Guan Huang Chen Lao Ma Hotpot

Originating from Chengdu, the Yi Xiao Guan small hotpot restaurant chain offers “hotpot for one” for the solo diner. With its bar-like seating arrangement, the restaurant gives solo diners the privacy they want and the discomfort of sharing tables with strangers.

The hotpot restaurant gives the diner an option of eating a buffet-style hotpot or a set meal option. You can start off by choosing an array of soup bases such as “pork bone & seafood soup,” “Sichuan-style spicy soup” or “sour and spicy tomato soup.”

The buffet-style hotpot also offers unlimited servings of fresh hotpot ingredients and other assortment of dishes like fried noodles for 175 yuan per person.

However, if you are not a big eater, you can opt for the set meal option. The set meal option allows you to choose your favorite assortment of meat, seafood and fresh vegetable hotpot ingredients with your choice of a soup base to start off your solo hearty meal.

The restaurant also allows you to mix your own dipping sauce at the sauce condiment station.

Opening hours: 11am-10pm

Tele: 3183-5006; 3182-6986

Address: 4/F, 282 Huaihai Rd; 2/F, 318 Hengtong Rd

Average price: 148 yuan

New fad of eating a comforting meal alone
Diantha Chong

 A poke bowl

Miss Poke

Other than “hotpot for one,” you can opt for less complicated meals such as poke bowls. Originating from Hawaii, a poke rice bowl comprises of rice, vegetables, cubed salmon or tuna fish with sauce toppings. A regular poke bowl at Miss Poke (43 yuan) contains a base of rice, cubed salmon, kelp, onion, cashew nuts and lotus roots. You can top off your meal with a homemade seafood sauce or a regular soya sauce to go with your rice bowl.

Miss Poke has other variations of poke bowls, such as “Korean kimchi bowl,” “Thai sweet & spicy chicken leg bowl” and “Australia wagyu steak bowl.”

Miss Poke is a small, quaint diner place with only 16 seats available, ideal for the solo diner.

Opening hours: 11am-8pm

Tel: 1391-8308-667

Address: 511 Dagu Rd

Average price: 52 yuan

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