Even for busy New York City, Times Square is a dizzying place. There are massive print and video advertisements stacked atop one another on all the very tall buildings crowding out the sky, street performers on every corner, and audiences rushing to Broadway plays. Every day about 380,000 pedestrians make their way through the chaos and throngs, late into the night, with these numbers rising annually, according to the city’s counts.
In other words, it’s not a place for solitary contemplation.
But it might be just the right location for a sanctuary. Or, that is what the owners of the cult Japanese ramen shop Ichiran believe. Last month, they opened their third US restaurant and 81st in the world in Times Square, a dining establishment designed specifically with solitude and reflection in mind. “It’s a place where you can go for peace and quiet,” says Annie Chen, director of the company’s US restaurants.
The music and lights are dim in Ichiran. The booths are set up like a school testing center, with dividers between each diner so that they can immerse themselves in their noodles in the solitude of a cubicle. As the company website puts it, the solo dining booth is designed to “allow focus on the flavors of your bowl with minimal distractions.” While a typical popular ramen shop is abuzz with conversation and movement, at an Ichiran location the kitchen is out of view and hearing, the prying eyes of fellow diners can’t be seen, and servers speak little if at all, delivering food ordered off of a written order form created for minimal exchange in respectful silence.
This design transforms meals into a kind of Zen exercise. An Ichiran diner can close their eyes and lean over a bowl to savor the smells and flavors in total concentration with no fear of judgment. Or they can just dig in and slurp without worry.
Chen tells Quartz that the company believes Times Square is the perfect place to introduce the millions of tourists who pass through to a sliver of Japanese culture. And if it seems counterintuitive, well, Ichiran is accustomed to disrupting conventions. In the Japan of the 1960s, the company created its solitary dining establishments because eating alone wasn’t considered cool, she says, and people didn’t feel comfortable going out solo. Ichiran changed that and quickly found it had discovered a niche. (Today there are many places to eat out alone in Japan’s big cities without feeling awkward.)
Ramen is adaptable after all. The hot noodle soup was first introduced to the Japanese from China in the 19th century—possibly earlier though evidence for this claim is scant—and became a national sensation. In his 2014 book The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze, New York University professor George Solt examines the noodle soup’s roots as a working person’s staple in Japan and subsequent evolution into a legitimate obsession for foodies around the world. Examining declassified US government documents and Japanese sources, Solt showed that ramen madness is the result of political and economic forces.
The creation of a black market for American wheat imports during the US occupation of Japan between 1945 and 1952, the industrialization of Japan’s labor force during the Cold War, and the elevation of working-class foods in redefining national identity during the economic stagnation of the1990s–2000s turned ramen into a Japanese icon, he argues. And the nation’s enthusiasm for the simple but rich, salty broth with noodles, vegetables, and meats can’t be overstated. The country has not one but two ramen museums, lots of ramen tours, and countless ramen shops.
According to Solt, 80% of ramen shops in Japan are independently owned, thanks in part to a tradition of owners giving permission and recipes to workers when they want to open their own locations. Ichiran’s chain approach and focus on an immersive ramen experience is the relatively rare exception, turning slurping noodles in solitude into a mighty business model.