America’s love of ramen shows no sign of waning. That’s apparent from the gigantic crowds that flocked to the opening of Japanese export Ichiran Ramen in New York this week. By 10:45 a.m. on Wednesday, hundreds of people had lined up outside the Bushwick, Brooklyn restaurant. According to Eater NY, some apparently even skipped work for the occasion.
Unlike some other dishes that draw huge lines — like, say, ramen burgers — the ramen trend is nothing new (though 31 percent of diners said it was their favorite food trend in a recent Zagat survey). But the service style and seating setup at Ichiran, a chain from Japan specializing in tonkotsu broth, is unusual by U.S. standards.
Here, diners are encouraged to eat in solo dining booths, where they can focus on the food without distractions. Patrons write their orders on slips of paper and hand them off to the server, rather than communicating verbally. (There’s also a separate area offering a more traditional dining experience with servers and tables, for those disinterested in dining alone in relative silence.)
As Eater’s Robert Sietsema noted, the ramen itself is quite plain: a bowl of little more than broth, noodles, a couple of slices of pork chashu, a handful of scallions described as "local," and a squirt of hot sauce. The real draw seems to be the service, although that aspect seems to be nearly as awkward as it is mysterious. He describes the dining booths as “tiny ramen prison[s]”:
In front of you, a little bamboo curtain is raised and lowered as the components of your meal arrive and are whisked away. Supposedly, this process involves no contact or even sighting of an entire server. They are viewed at crotch level, with an occasional trembling hand thrust into your field of vision.
Another thing that sets Ichiran apart from the ramen pack is the speed at which meals are prepared. The restaurant has a “15 second standard” — a goal to serve each bowl of ramen within 15 seconds of ordering.
The restaurant produces all its noodles in a kitchen next door. Director of operations Hana Isoda tells Eater NY that Ichiran’s production kitchen can make up to 1,000 noodles per hour, and “up to 8,000 bowls of ramen” each day.
One thing those lining up to eat at the New York location might not be too thrilled about? The price. One bowl of the tonkotsu ramen costs $18.90, before add-ons like noodle refills. Meanwhile in Japan, the same bowl costs $7.
Another chain bringing its uniquely Japanese service style to New York is Ikinari Steak, owned by chef and restaurateur Kunio Ichinose and expected to debut in the East Village later this year. Like Ichiran, the goal at Ikinari is to get customers in and out quickly. The quick-service steakhouse chain offers no chairs, so diners eat standing up, and is wildly popular in Japan. And, if the line at Ichiran is any indication, it’ll find plenty of fans in the U.S. as well.