Ichiran, a Japanese restaurant chain, opened its first New York City restaurant earlier this year and it is based on a very strange concept. About half its 82 seats are ” flavor concentration booths”, the rest regular group seating. These booths are like library carrels with dividers on either side and in front so that the diner is utterly alone. After filling out a menu with his choices, the diner pushes a call button. A”faceless server “then retrieves the menu -” faceless” because the booth is constructed with a movable shade to reveal only his/her torso – and delivers the order when it is ready. Throughout the entire meal, the diner never interacts with any other human, presumably so that he is free from distractions and can concentrate solely on the food. The average meal time (in Japan) is only about 20 minutes which makes for a quick turnaround and enables the restaurant to enhance turnover.
But what does it do for the diner? I don’t know.
Forget about the supposed intent of enabling the diner to have a heightened dining experience because he is concentrating only on the food. Ichiran is a ramen restaurant serving only one kind of soup ( pork-bone-broth tonkotsu) though diners can customize their soup by specifying the richness of the broth and the strength of the dashi. Ramen lovers may blanch at my assertion but… ramen is ramen. Dining at a ramen restaurant is like eating at a pizzeria or at a barbecue joint. A fine dining experience it is not.
Leave it to the Japanese to come up with a concept like this. There is much to admire about the Japanese but they have some strange quirks. Remember the tube like ” hotel rooms” that guests can crawl into and sleep when they want an economical overnight stay. Just the thought of it gives me the willies.
While I agree that food is the main ingredient of the experience of dining out, it is not the only one. The total experience includes such things as the ambience, the table settings and the interaction with other diners and the restaurant staff. Without them, one might as well take out food and eat alone at home.
I wonder how long Ichiran will last in New York. New Yorkers are canny customers and I expect them to see through the gimmick very soon. No matter how good the ramen and the broth, there are plenty of other ramen restaurants in New York to choose from.