If you’re proudly single and tired of pitying looks from strangers when you do anything alone—or if you sometimes just wish you were single and need an escape from the kids, roommates, or spouses— then you’ll love Toronto’s newest restaurant that caters to parties of one. As the city’s first solitary dining restaurant, Yunnan Noodle Shack is proving that sometimes it’s kinda cool to ride solo.
Husband-and-wife owners Andy Su and Jane Yu opened Yunnan Noodle Shack last week at 43 Baldwin Street. Everything about the restaurant, from its concept to the menu and even its name was inspired by Su’s hometown of Kunming in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan.
With over a decade of experience in the food and beverage industry, Su always knew he wanted to introduce his hometown culture to the people of Toronto. The items that dominate the menu most are dishes from Kunming: the rice noodles, which, Su says, are a common “fast-food” type of meal popular anytime of day; and the chilli peppers that are actually picked directly from the mountains of Yunnan and Kuaizhou.
But it wasn’t until a few years ago on a trip back to Yunnan that Su gained inspiration for the new venue while dining alone. “I was very impressed by the solitary dining concept, because I felt very comfortable sitting there eating my ramen.”
Su feels that too often people are distracted when they are dining with others and are being told how to feel about it, rather than allowing themselves to taste and appreciate the full capacity of the meal through their own interpretations, which, he says, is all about how you feel on a given day.
“When you eat alone, you can start to feel yourself,” he explains. “We encourage customers to explore by themselves. No matter the good, no matter the bad. We’re here to be guide, we’re in the background, we’re the tools. The food is also the tools. We just want you to get into the position to have a conversation with yourself and then to finish that journey and whether it’s thirty minutes, forty minutes—that moment is just for you, not anybody else.”
To enter Yunnan, guests walk through a curtain with Chinese characters meaning “it’s our first time meeting.” On the other side, wooden panels separate the spacious booths which each solo diners get to themselves. Beside a call button, in the booth diners will find five pairs of chopsticks, each engraved with the character Fú which means good fortune. Why five sets of chopsticks? Each one represents the five Chinese elements of the universe—gold, water, fire, soil, wood—which are the fundamentals of everything.
“We want our customers to have everything.”the co-owner explains, “like happiness and fortune.”
Su says he and Yu are currently working on developing blind boxes to place on each booth. The boxes will include an experience guide to explain some of the symbolism and characters found throughout the restaurant. “Everything is designed for a purpose.”
There is also a phone stand on the table, which is intended to be used as a place for customers to set aside their phones so they can enjoy the meal without distractions. “We want the customers to use their time to explore more things by themselves, instead of just looking at their phones,” says Su.
But, Su admits, the apparatus hasn’t always been used exactly as he had hoped quite yet, as he’s noticed diners propping up their devices to allow them to watch videos as they dine. Su, however, is optimistic that this will change once guests are more familiar with the concept of solo dining.
And it’s likely Torontonians will become more familiar with solitary dining. Back in 2019, OpenTable released data showing that solo reservations in Canada were on the rise, having grown by 75 per cent over the previous two years, with Toronto having the highest rate of growth in the country. And one can only assume that in the years since, COVID restrictions and isolations only encouraged individuals to get even more comfortable with solo activities—including dining.
Though Yunnan is currently the only restaurant in the city that exclusively serves solo diners, there are lots of other places that make great places for enjoying your own company. The wide chairs at Queen Street West’s Ikkousha Ramen Chicken—because, obviously, you can never have enough ramen—ensure you have enough space to yourself while you read the infographics that hang on the wall above you. Another favourite for solo diners is La Banane, a contemporary French restaurant whose marble-countered bar allows diners to watch the chefs as the prepare from the raw bar in front.
Yunnan Noodle Shack is currently open seven days a week from 11:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. until 9 p.m.