Solitary dining and self-reflection in drama Cheers to Me
Cheers to Me is a wonderful hidden gem of a K-drama, lost in the annals of 2015. Was it because it aired on a lesser-known cable channel instead of a well-known network? Or was it the format? At ten episodes of about 20 minutes each, this wasn’t a show to stick in your typical primetime slot. The episodes feel more like vignettes than full-fledged episodes, but that’s part of their charm.
Cheers to Me is the Korean remake of a Japanese manga called Wakako-zake. The execution of manga or anime compared with a Korean drama is obviously very different, but the general storyline is the same. It follows the main character — a single working woman — who, at the end of a long day, likes to enjoy a solitary dinner out. The story in Cheers to Me is simple, but it has a lot to say about enjoying yourself, about independence, and about solitude.
Our lead, Ra Yeo-joo, is played by Yoon Jin-seo, whom I hadn’t seen in a drama before this one, but she has been in some biggies like Heirs (I don’t even recall her in that!) and The Return of Iljimae. She’s joined by Lee Jae-yoon, Bae Nuri, and Kim Nan-hee as her colleagues at a big publishing house, where she works as a successful editor.
I first heard of this drama because I’m a huge Lee Jae-yoon fan (there, I said it!). I love his warm masculine presence on screen — and I appreciate actors that are content with great supporting roles. Not everyone needs to lead a drama, after all, and we’ve all seen how supporting characters can add so much depth and personality to a show. If I came to Cheers to Me for Lee Jae-yoon, I didn’t stay for him. It was actually the beautiful pacing and tone of the show that caught me. Cheers to Me is even-keeled, quiet, and simple. It’s a drama that hums along on its merry little way.
The episodes have a bit of a pattern to them — they start with Ra Yeo-joo waking up in the morning and starting her day, sometimes with flashbacks to her rustic childhood by the seaside and the food she ate growing up. The rest of each episode follows her through her work day, and generally ends with her choosing a place to eat, ordering, and enjoying her food in solitude. Yes, it feels a little bit like the Let’s Eat series in moments — but the eating sequences are less comedic, less meokbang, and more about self-reflection and the memories that food can evoke. Each meal she chooses over the course of the drama is purposefully selected. Once it was because she had a bad day and needed comfort food; another time it was because she woke up missing her mother’s steamed kimchi and went to a favorite place that served food reminiscent of her mother’s.
Cheers to Me is hard to classify, but my best try would be a workplace-foodie-healing drama. The idea of food and mealtime as healing and restorative is a theme of the show from the start. In the very first episode, after we’ve been introduced to Ra Yeo-joo, her daily routine, and the colleagues she spends her day with, we see her looking forward to her evening dining plans. There’s none of the embarrassment or self-consciousness we got from Lee Soo-kyung in Let’s Eat trying to eat by herself at a restaurant. In fact, Ra Yeo-joo often tries to escape company so she can dine alone.
One evening, when her team is getting roaring drunk at a BBQ place, she fakes a phone call, hides her purse, and expertly escapes the noise and smoke and chaos of the restaurant. Where does she head instead? A tiny restaurant that buzzes in their customers, where she can enjoy some quiet and the dish she’s been craving all day. As per her style, she orders confidently and strategically — Yeo-joo knows what she wants to eat, and she knows what drink to pair it with. At the restaurant that night, it’s a simple draft beer; she sips it slowly with a smile and says to herself (and her co-workers who are texting her and getting wind of her disappearance), “This one glass is mine. I’m sorry but today it’s cheers to me.”
Food brings Ra Yeo-joo comfort, and also rest. Sometimes it’s the respite she needs from the hustle and bustle of the city. “Why do I endure this existence?” she asks herself in the morning while commuting with thousands of other office workers. But, in the evenings over a meal and a drink, she seems completely content. “Don’t think of drinking as a waste of time,” says a quote from the Talmud that ends Episode 1, “It’s a time where your mind goes to rest.” This idea of enjoying a meal as rest is often echoed throughout the drama — for instance, Yeo-joo gets a text from her mother that reminds her not to just swallow her food, but to “think of it as restorative.” It turns out watching Ra Yeo-joo enjoying her meal and finding peace and quiet is actually contagious. It’s not only pleasant to watch, but if you’re not already a solo diner, it makes you want to try it out (if you’re anything like me).
There wouldn’t be the foodie/healing side of the drama if we didn’t have the workplace side — this is where we see Ra Yeo-joo and her department go through the ups and downs of working for a big publishing house. Yeo-joo’s thesis about office life is that “each worker survives by their own methods.” For her manager, it’s checking the stocks every hour, for Lee Jae-yoon’s character it’s drinking all night and then nursing his hangover the next day, and for the office maknae, it’s checking her social media feed all day long. For Ra Yeo-joo, as we have already learned, it’s the simple pleasure of that solitary dining experience.
You won’t be surprised to learn that there are no sweeping romances in this drama — nor back hugs, rain confessions, or anything like that — but what we do get are some interesting work relationships that feel a lot more like real life. I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Ra Yeo-joo and Lee Jae-yoon.
It’s sometimes professional, sometimes flirty, and the two actors do a brilliant job of setting up the familiarity between two people that have worked together for several years and spend the better part of their days sitting at neighboring desks. “Overpass,” Jae-yoon instant messages her when something’s happening in the office. They meet there many a time, and their chats and snack machine drink breaks were some of my favorite moments of the show.
While the episodes are similar in feel, and create a pattern that mirrors the repetition of her work days, the show is also about Ra Yeo-joo’s journey as well. This is another thing that Cheers to Me captures so well — that even when it seems like there is not a lot happening on the surface, there’s a whole inner life going on that brings color to everything. The memories and emotions behind each of Ra Yeo-joo’s meals tells this story, and her conclusion at the end of the drama is this:
“Ten years later, twenty years later — I am unable as of now to tell where I will be. Right now, I can make the happiest choices of the moment, and spend the most me-like day I can.”
The drama, then, isn’t so much about the food and drinks as it is about our heroine’s process of learning who she is, and letting herself grow. It’s a subtle message, but it stays with you after the drama has ended. What brings you joy, or makes you feel the most “you-like”? Just like our heroine, we’re left to contemplate these thoughts over a nice meal and drink. Cheers!