Today I went to a new restaurant all by myself.
Don’t laugh. This was kind of a big deal.
Restaurants in Japan, or any foreign country for that matter, can be a little intimidating.
The menu is in a different language. The wait staff doesn’t speak English – minimal at best. And the food is weird.
Whenever I have to pick a restaurant for myself in Tokyo, I go in this strange holding pattern. I wander around the block, or mall, or whatever have you, and just stare at store fronts. Sometimes I might even stop to look at a menu, but not for too long, because god forbid one of the staff tries to catch my attention and I have to interact.
Gotta keep moving. Like a crop duster operating with one engine trying to find a soft place to land in a corn field. Or like a dog who has to pee but can’t find the right tree.
The first time I went to a restaurant on my own was when I visited Tokyo in 2009. Lisa had to work, and I was on my own for the day. I went to Tsukiji, the fish market. This is where they bring in the catch of the day to be delivered fresh to the sushi restaurants of Tokyo – of the world, really.
So anyway, I was at Tsukiji, and what else should I do, but go to a sushi restaurant? There were over 10 restaurants all lined up across the street from the market. Still, I circled the block 5 times, peering at each restaurant like an old man trying to figure out if he is eating minestrone or vegetable soup.
Finally, one of the shopkeeps nabbed my attention.
“American?” he asked.
“We have an English menu!”
Well, sort of. See, this sushi joint was the only place without a line out front, and it was full of Americans. The sushi itself wasn’t anything to write home about. Better than in America, yes, but probably the least sumptuous sushi I have eaten in Tokyo.
But at least I didn’t go hungry.
Now that I live in Tokyo, sure, I have to eat out on my own sometimes. But I always go somewhere safe. Like the okonomiyaki restaurant near our home, which is familiar because Lisa took me there first and some of the staff is trying to learn English and the menu has big, bright pictures you can point to and say “oneigaishimasu.”
It’s very non-threatening. Is that too much to ask from a restaurant?
So anyway, every Wednesday I take Japanese lessons at the same place I teach English. The lesson ends at 2:30. I don’t work until 4:30, which means there are two hours to kill. Since it is lunch time, I always go out to eat.
And I always go to Bubby’s.
Bubby’s is an American burger joint that has possibly the best burgers in Tokyo. One day the lunch special was a chili cheese burger that just melted my heart. Then one day they had a tempura-fried chicken breast on a flaky biscuit with honey mustard and homemade coleslaw. Drool.
They also play good music – mostly British pop. One day they played Johnny Cash gospel songs, then somehow followed that up with Frosty the Snowman. This was in August, mind you. It was delightful.
Now, every time I go to Bubby’s, I think to myself, I should try a different restaurant. Especially since there are over 100 restaurants in the Tokyo Station area (maybe even 1,000), and I should really try to expand my culinary horizons a bit.
Instead, it’s the same routine. Bubby’s happens to be in the Yaesu underground mall, so I wander along the hallways, glancing in each restaurant, doing my damndest not to make eye contact with anyone inside. But then I always wind up back at Bubby’s. Especially if the menu says: “Today’s special – chili cheese burger.”
Even though the chili is guaranteed to splatter on my white dress shirt – down my gullet it goes.
But not today. Today, I did the usual tour. I looked at the tonkatsu (pork cutlet) restaurant. I looked at the Italian bar. I even meandered through the liquor store for a spell.
Yet, I still found my way back to Bubby’s. Only today, Bubby’s was packed. Not a table to be found.
This finally provided the opportunity to stretch out my comfort zone. A restaurant a few stores back had a picture of gyoza on its menu sign, and some other stir-fried dishes that didn’t look too exotic (as in, they had beef).
Plus, there were several other businessmen sitting by themselves. Bubby’s clientele usually consists of teenage girls, middle aged women and gaijin. While I fit into one category, I want to fit in with the Japanese businessmen. I do, after all, wear a tie to work.
Full of gumption and gum drops, I went into the new restaurant.
With all apologies, I don’t know the name of the restaurant because it was written in kanji. And as it turned out, so was the menu. And there were no pictures.
I couldn’t decipher one word of the menu. I didn’t want to leave though. I didn’t want to hurt the nice waitress’ feelings. It’s like your 3-year-old drew you a picture and you don’t want to ask, “What is it?”
So I stuck it out. I figured I would order off the lunch special menu. There were only 6 items. They had to be good, right?
Finally, I called the waitress over and pointed at the bottom listing. “Oneigaishimas.”
Then she pointed to something listed as 100 yen with a 2 posted next to it and she said “Ni gyoza?”
Two gyoza (they turned out to be 2 huge, delicious gyoza) for $1? Hell yeah. At least I would be eating one thing palatable.
When my meal was delivered, I discovered that I had ordered a stir-fried rice dish that came with egg drop soup. When I recalled this to Lisa later on she informed me it was a Chinese restaurant, which now makes perfect sense.
At the time I decided it was a Thai restaurant, an assumption that really holds zero merit.
The stir-fried rice dish was good. However, it was essentially a plate of greasy rice with some bits of vegetable, mystery meat, and tons of garlic, and I had to eat the whole plate with chop sticks or risk looking the fool.
Needless to say, lunch took a while. But it was good and I left with a sense of accomplishment.
Then I went to Starbucks.