It only took three years for Alibaba’s made-up shopping holiday on Singles Day, originally a joke celebration created by students in Chinese universities in the 1990s, to exceed Cyber Monday and Black Friday’s sales figures – combined. Since 2009, massive discounts have been offered annually on November 11 (11/11 – one is the loneliest number, after all).
In 2019, sales on Alibaba topped US$38 billion in a 24-hour period, blowing last year’s record – US$30 billion – out of the water. In case there’s any doubt as to the importance the company places on the date, this year Taylor Swift performed at the gala evening that preceded the day’s online sales activities.
Of course, nowadays it’s not just singles cashing in on all the good deals (and most other online retailers join in the “holiday”), but single-person households do wield an increasingly powerful portion of the economy. Increasing urbanization has led to more young people being cut off from their extended families, and the traditional preference for sons, resulting in a male-heavy generation, has also contributed to an estimated 200 million unmarried people living on their own. Inevitably, these shifts also have profound impacts on how people eat.
Around the world, solo diners have taken center stage. Just last month, The Wall Street Journal declared solo dining the new normal, with a report that Americans ate 45 percent of all meals alone.
China is no different, although the shift feels even more sudden and disconnected from relatively recent traditional norms. The collectivist nature of Chinese culture has emphasized the importance of family-style dining where multiple dishes are shared among the group. Mealtimes are seen as a moment to increase bonds between families, co-workers, business partners and friends, thus strengthening feelings of community and the guanxi network that endures today.
It doesn’t hurt that the more people you happen to be dining with increases the number of dishes served to the table – indeed, group dining has the side effect that your meals become rich with variety, as shared bonds have always meant sharing everything on the table.
But we can’t ignore that as the number of solo diners eating out soars, coupled with the incredible rise of food delivery use, the trend shows no sign of slowing. You can even argue that with the level of smartphone addiction and lack of conversation often on display at group dinners, many diners are in fact eating alone, just together.
Instead of checking out one of the many new restaurants designed specifically for solo diners or ordering in alone, to honor Singles Day, we decided to visit one of our favorite home-style restaurants to test just how well it holds up for a solo diner.
We decided to visit one of our favorite home-style restaurants to test just how well it holds up for a solo diner.
At Hao Sheng Jia Jiu, there is no menu – the waitress simply asks if you have any allergies and if there’s anything you don’t eat. You can also specify a budget if you’d like (up to around RMB 200 per person), and then the kitchen proceeds to adjust your serving size and number of dishes served based on your group’s parameters. The kitchen is a one-man show: Mr. Lu manages to cook for the entire restaurant all on his own, with just one waitress helping out with service. The tiny kitchen is barely more than five square meters, and like many good restaurants in the old neighborhoods of Shanghai, some of the prep area spills outside into the alley behind it.
The décor, or lack thereof, feels pretty typical for a good Shanghainese home-style restaurant, but at the same time increasingly hard to come by. Almost nothing decorates the plain white walls, the surfaces are all clean but not pristine, there are tablecloths, although not particularly nice ones, on the four tables, and there’s not quite enough charm to call it quaint or cozy. The single VIP room has a door (but also houses the restaurant’s refrigerated drink storage).
On our solo visit, we’re immediately greeted with a plate of peanuts, chamomile tea, and a portion of quick-fried garlic shrimp, so we get to peeling. Offered a choice of red-braised daikon or stir-fried Shanghai bok choy (上海青), we opt for the latter. They’re stir-fried then tossed with a sesame-soy sauce that is flavorful yet light and manages to let the freshness of the veggies shine through.
We hear the table next to us order noodles instead of rice, so we add our noodle order in as well – everything is fresh and cooked together in batches for all the tables, so we figure we’re not adding too much work for the chef. Indeed, diners mostly enjoy the same dishes – we look around a bit jealously as the two friends beside us share a whole steamed fish in addition to the delicious sesame tofu, known as vegetarian chicken (素鸡), that rounds out our meal.
The table of four also got a platter of lion’s head meatballs (狮子头) and hairy crab roe (蟹粉黄). We mix our greens in with our scallion oil noodles (葱油拌面), polish off the sesame tofu and leave incredibly stuffed. When we ask for the bill, the waitress checks with the chef and he deems it to be 60 RMB (approx. US$9).
Our hypothesis that it’s possible to solo dine at a no-menu, family-style restaurant was fully borne out at Hao Sheng – we still sampled a good variety of dishes without breaking the bank, and the quality of food was much higher than at other quick neighborhood lunch stops dotting the area. Would a group dining experience have been even better? Yes, but sometimes that’s just not in the cards.
A little hesitation is understandable when eating in a new place with no menu or listed prices, but diners have nothing to be worried about here. Hao Sheng has managed to stay in business for 22 years by focusing on customer satisfaction and making food just like their Shanghainese grandparents used to, at a reasonable price point. Prices are fair, you’ll leave full, and you’ll probably like, if not love every dish that lands on the table. And even though Hao Sheng has a Michelin Bib Gourmand award and only about 20 seats, at lunchtime you may be able to pop in without a reservation. If you go alone, you might even make friends with the other diners in the small dining room. Or better yet, you can revel in the solitude.