And eating alone is rarely a relaxing experience. You’re relegated to a table in a drafty corner, and while so-and-so is chatting with their friend or their significant other, you’re on your phone scrolling through spam emails trying to look busy. Then, you’re rushed through your meal so that the couple waiting for your table can be seated.
But when I heard about Haidilao Hot Pot, the Chinese hot pot chain famous for its free manicures, robot servers, dancing noodles, and giant plushie companions for single diners, I knew I had to eat there alone.
On a blustery Tuesday afternoon, I took the slow train into Flushing, Queens, where the first Haidilao restaurant in New York opened in September. Here’s what happened.
I stumbled around Flushing in bracing winter winds until I came to the backside of Flushing Commons, a mostly-empty commercial plaza.
The downstairs lobby was warm and welcoming, with free snacks, tea, and games. The host spoke to me in Chinese, even though my Chinese is very poor.
I was instantly drawn to the colourful array of free snacks. Little did I know, this was but a taste of what was to come.
I was thrilled to see sweet hawthorn fruit chips, a popular Chinese snack that I grew up with.
They also had these very tasty puffed corn snacks. I considered lingering downstairs, but the host directed me upstairs. “It’s warmer up there,” he said.
I went up to the first waiting room, which had a playpen, a massage chair, board games, books, and lemon water.
The second waiting room featured more free snacks, plenty of seating, a shoe polisher, and a hand massage and manicure station — all free.
But since I’d come on a Tuesday during lunch, there was no wait. I was led directly to my table for one, where a tablet menu and Haidilao apron awaited.
My waiter helped me order a two-flavour hot pot (spicy and non-spicy) with a wagyu beef combo, dancing noodles, and house specialty tofu and shrimp paste. I didn’t know how one ate shrimp paste, but I went with it.
He disappeared momentarily, then came back with a giant adorable plush doll to keep me company during my meal.
He also brought over a hair tie and a lens wipe and plastic bag for my phone. Suddenly, I heard a whir.
A robot had carried out my meal mere moments after I’d ordered! It was a cute robot, too.
My waiter transferred the dishes from the robot to the table. Then as the robot wheeled away, it said in Chinese, “Enjoy your meal!”
Finally, all my food was in front of me. But I still had to wait for my broth to come to a boil, so I decided to make a trip to the sauce bar.
The sauce bar was loaded with sauces, fruits, appetizers, porridge, and even dessert.
It came with a handy sauce-crafting guide that helped diners pair certain sauces with different meats, veggies, and seafood items.
I was dizzied by the variety. I hadn’t even heard of many of these sauces.
But as a hot pot lover, I had my go-to sauce combo: sesame paste, chilli oil, garlic, green onion, and a touch of soy sauce.
I made a mental note to come back later for the dessert, which was fruity grass jelly and optional sweet toppings. I skipped the porridge. A table of food was waiting for me.
The wagyu beef was deep red and marbled with flecks and patches of snow-white fat.
Haidilao makes its tofu in house. It’s soft but not meltingly so.
The shrimp paste had been shaped to resemble the back of a large shrimp or a fish fillet.
I’d ordered a combo because it was easier than deciding what vegetables I wanted for myself, but I was pretty happy with this colourful array.
I appreciated the small but meaningful touches: tea that was the perfect temperature, fresh fruit brought to my table, and sour plum juice — a Chinese summer favourite.
Suddenly, loud music filled the restaurant and my waiter told me to go watch the performance.
A costumed performer entered the dining space and began dancing to bombastic Chinese opera music.
This felt like a Chinese version of the Texas Roadhouse line dance, except diners seemed delighted to engage with the performer.
The performer went around playing rock, paper, scissors with diners, who clamored to participate.
Diners who won the game even received prizes …
… handed to them elegantly from the performer’s red fan!
Finally, my hot pot had reached its boiling point and my food was ready to be cooked.
My waiter scooped out some pork bone broth for me into a bowl full of herbs and seasonings.
It was pleasant and light, but I knew it wasn’t going to be the highlight of the meal. Broth was just the beginning.
My waiter scooped the shrimp paste into tiny balls and dropped them into the pot.
He also helped me drop my tofu into the non-spicy section of my pot.
After three and a half minutes, my shrimp paste balls were done. Half were boiled in the spicy “mala” broth with beef tallow and half in the pork bone broth.
My waiter had also brought a special soy-and-vinegar concoction for dipping my shrimp.
They were melt-in-your-mouth soft. But after a few shrimp paste balls, I had to move on.
I was really, really looking forward to the beef. I put a few strips in each broth.
I learned from my Inner Mongolian relatives that beef slices are done in seconds after it hits the boiling broth, so I scooped them out as soon as they turned brown.
Haidilao is Szechuan hot pot, which focuses more on “mala,” or a numbing spiciness that comes from peppercorns.
Juicy, fatty, and incredibly tender, the beef was my favourite thing so far. It was perfect dunked in my tangy, nutty sauce.
As I was eating, another waiter came over and asked if I was cold. She offered me a shawl, then turned up the heating when I declined the shawl. I felt like I was in China being coddled by my cold-phobic relatives.
I was also brought special sauce to dip my tofu in. From what I could taste, it was a combination of oil, chilli, garlic, and Szechuan peppercorn.
It was soft and grainy, and the special sauce added an extra kick. But I found myself wishing there was less spice and more flavour.
I’d demolished most of my meat, but my meal was far from over.
When my waiter came by to skim foam from the surface of the broth, I decided to take a break from stuffing myself to go for some hand pampering.
I went to the hand care station, which was empty, and asked for a massage.
The masseuse put on gloves, told me to take a seat, and scooped a glob of purple sugar exfoliant onto my hand.
She massaged the exfoliant into my hands. After she was done, she directed me to a luxurious sink in which to rinse off before the next step.
She lathered my hands with milk-and-honey lotion, stuck thin plastic gloves on them, and told me to put them into two massaging machines.
For five minutes, the machines massaged my hands in slow, undulating pressure waves. In the meantime, we made small talk.
With my hands feeling re-invigorated, I returned to my hot pot for the next stage: veggies.
Veggies reveal bland broth because they only taste good when dipped in good broth.
This broth wasn’t bland, but after eating the veggies, I knew it wasn’t the best I’d had.
Still, with a bit of sauce, they were perfectly satisfactory.
Finally, it was time for my dancing noodles.
A masked server with a tray of dough pulled up to my table. Loud music began to play.
He stretched the dough out into a long ribbon, and the dance began.
He twirled it all around …
Up and down, front and back …
And even at me, which felt a little aggressive. Oh well.
Then, when the dough had been thoroughly stretched and worked, he wrapped it into neat folds.
Half went into the spicy broth, half into the non-spicy.
They, too, were done almost instantly.
They were absolutely delicious. Chewy, bouncy, and fresh, the dough had soaked up all the flavour of the soup.
It was time for a trip to the bathroom. I had high expectations based on the rest of my experience, and they were met. Not only was there a diaper changing station, but there were also diapers and baby wipes.
I don’t have a kid. But if I did, I’d be thrilled by the kid-height sink surrounded by adorable playthings.
As a non-child, I was already enthralled.
Surprise, surprise, each stall had an electronic bidet with adjustable temperature, water pressure, and specially-designed programs for different areas of your underside!
I couldn’t get it to work, though.
I was also amused by this sign, which offered staff assistance for our sanitary needs — truly above and beyond what I’d expect from any restaurant’s customer service.
After I was done, I had the option of refreshing myself with Mario Badescu face spray, hand lotion, or Chanel No. 5 perfume. Or all of the above.
I returned to my seat feeling quite full and a bit sorrowful knowing my self-date was about to come to a close.
I called my waiter over and asked to take home the rest of my meal.
He packed my broth, veggies, and noodles into little takeaway cups, and even brought me an extra packet of soup stock.
I made one last trip to the sauce bar for dessert: a bowl of fruity grass jelly topped with crushed peanuts, sesame seeds, and raisins.
My belly was bursting at the fly, but I had to try this dessert.
Fruity, light, and slightly cold, the grass jelly was the perfect ending to a perfect meal.
That said, my meal was anything but cheap. My total came to $US76.08 before tip, and although my meal had been big enough for two, it was much more than I would usually pay for a lunch out.
But with all the unlimited free drinks, appetizers, desserts, snacks, massages, and extraordinarily kind and attentive service, I’d truly felt like a VIP.
The only thing I was unhappy with at the end of my meal was the fact that it was over. As I said goodbye to my stuffed companion, arm loaded with leftovers, I bumped into the robot that had brought me my meal. “Get out of my way, or I’ll get mad!” it chirped cutely. I got out of its way.