“It’s designed to make the diner feel like the main character”: A visit to Toronto’s first solo-dining restaurant

“It’s designed to make the diner feel like the main character”: A visit to Toronto’s first solo-dining restaurant

Yunnan Noodle Shack in Baldwin Village serves up steaming bowls of noodles and alone time

The solo diner—at least as they’re often portrayed—is a person to be pitied. Just look at them, sadly slurping soup and breaking bread in the company of no one, surrounded by happy couples, friends and families. The message is clear: when it comes to eating at a restaurant, together is good, alone is bad. Yunnan Noodle Shack, a new restaurant in Baldwin Village, is trying to change that.

Billing itself as Toronto’s first solitary dining experience, Yunnan Noodle Shack—with 25 partitioned dining stalls, each made for one person—is an introvert’s dream. “The restaurant was designed to cultivate a sense of calm,” says co-owner and chef Andy Su, who opened the spot this month with his wife, Jane Yu.

Noodle soup for one Photo by Rebecca Gao

The couple, who are also behind the first Canadian franchise of Japanese steakhouse Kyoto Katsugyu, got the idea for Yunnan Noodle Shack during a trip to Japan. While in Tokyo, they visited Ichiran Ramen, where solo diners experience minimal interaction with other humans—including restaurant staff—during their meals. “I was able to focus on the food itself,” says Su, who adds that any anxiety about the language barrier and pressure to capture the moment fell away in the booth. “A good dining experience should help people feel connected to themselves. It should open up their senses—not just their mouths but their ears, eyes, nose, everything.”

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I visited Yunnan Noodle Shack for some noodle soup and a little me time. The dim lighting, lo-fi R&B and zen decor make the restaurant feel more like a trendy yoga studio. For maximum privacy, every seat faces the wall and each table is separated by partitions. Everything diners need can be found in the booths: there’s a drawer for personal belongings, a QR code for the menu (you can order and pay using your phone), a stand to prop up devices for hands-free surfing or streaming, extra spoons and chopsticks, a garbage can, chili oil and a call button—just in case you actually want to talk to a server or ask for a refill of water. “All of this is designed to make the diner feel like the main character,” Su says. The service and other patrons should become background noise.

Once I was seated, I realized that I didn’t have to accommodate anyone else. I didn’t have to negotiate which appetizer to get or make sure to order enough for the table. Overwhelmed by the freedom, I went with one of the first things on the menu: the minced pork chili with pork crisp rice noodles ($15), a noodle soup that came with a marinated egg and pickled lettuce. Another upside to the absence of company is not having to worry about the slurping sounds you’re making or how you look with noodles hanging out of your mouth—all of those eating-in-public pretensions go out the window. I also got the chili oil blood cake with ginger ($5) and the hilariously named chili beef finger meat, skewers of beef with a subtle numbing spice ($7).

@torontolife We went to Toronto’s first solitary dining restaurant. Yunnan Noodle Shack serves Yunnan-inspired Chinese food. Diners sit in partitioned one-person booths for privacy. We had the minced pork noodles—which were perfectly spicy salty and tangy—and the blood cake with ginger. Conclusion: solo dining doesn’t have to be sad. #torontorestaurants #wheretoeattoronto #torontohiddengems #torontofoodie ♬ Summer day – TimTaj

Su says the menu was inspired by his upbringing in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan. He created some of the dishes from memory. “I remember waiting in line to buy breakfast every morning when I was a little kid—I could smell the different flavours,” he says. To bring these recollections to life, Su imports all of the spices, sauces and seasonings from Yunnan, and the noodles and wonton wrappers are custom-made by the restaurant’s supplier.

Su and Yu also plan to open a dessert shop, called the Sweet Spot, in the adjoining space. There, they’ll serve up traditional Chinese desserts like tong yuan (rice balls) and tea. Su hopes it will be the bright and boisterous yang to the Noodle Shack’s dim and quiet yin.

It’s all of this intentionality that makes the solo dining experience feel cozy rather than awkward or sad. As I ate, I noticed that I was being more thoughtful with every bite. Without the usual distractions, I was able to focus more on the flavours and textures. And despite the phone holder, I put my device away, zoned out and listened to the hum of other patrons and the soft music in the background. It was nice to be alone in a room of others living their lives parallel to mine.

“With solitary dining, the idea is to take that time to have a conversation with yourself,” says Su. “It’s only 30 or 40 minutes—just a small moment. But you don’t need much time to have a conversation with yourself and your inner child.”