Dining Out in Tokyo Sometimes Tasteless Experience

Food & Drink Tokyo Life - June 20th, 1975

by M. Guss

Dining out in Tokyo – or any other big city for that matter has become so sophisticated and complicated that I’m not sure a simple Nebraskan like myself can cope with it any longer.

Take the menus of most of the chichi restaurants, for example. Unless a guy can read French he’s liable to starve to death.

This is true not only in French style establish­ments but also in countless other foreign restau­rants. I know of one Albanian restaurant in Japan where all the customers are Turks – yet the menu is printed in French.

Usually it’s too dark in those places to read the menu anyway. That’s why I always carry a flash­light with me. Once I was trying to impress a visitor and merely pointed to something on the menu and told the waiter that’s what I wanted. He said: “You can’t have that. That’s the chanteuse from Lyon.”

There’s no denying the fact, however, that I’ve had some great dinners in Tokyo. It’s just that I feel a little out of place in the atmosphere of overkill elegance. For one thing, I’m easily in­timidated by those haughty Maitre Ds. They usually give me that “what’s a bum like you do­ing in a nice place like this” look.

My first experience in one of Tokyo’s finest was a humiliating affair. I tucked the wide linen napkin under my chin like we do back in Omaha, and the Maitre D walked up to me and asked if I wanted a shave or a haircut.

Even the waiters make me nervous. Hovering over you while you eat, trying to anticipate your every move. Then when you really want something, like a glass of water, you can’t find one. They’re all in the kitchen playing Mah jongg.

They look downright impeccable in their new white gloves. But all it does for me is make me wonder if their hands are really clean underneath. And they’re forever brushing crumbs off my table­cloth. Gives me such an inferiority complex that I never know what  to do with  things such as parsley or olive pits. In desperation I often slip the parsley into the lapel of my jacket and wear it as a boutonniere – when the Maitre D isn’t looking, of course.

The olive pits require a little more ingenuity. Occasionally, I’ll hide them in my shirt pocket or as a last resort swallow them. And if the service is especially slow, they make a handy weapon. I place them between the index finger and the thumb and sort of squish them in the direction of the waiters. A few direct hits on the noggin brings them running – often with a knife in their hands.

The array of knives and forks placed in front of the diner is absolutely frightening. Nobody could use that much cutlery for just one meal. Invariably. I wind up with a few untouched pieces of silver. To guard against this lately I have been switching forks after each mouthful, much like the President using a dozen or so ballpoint pens to sign an important bill. Chopsticks would be so much simpler.

I’m also left cold by all those flaming dishes and cooking at tableside. It’s a definite hazard and I’m surprised the Fire Department lets them get away with it. With the prices as high as they are you’d think they’d build kitchens large enough to handle those chores.

Sometimes you just can’t win. After glancing at all the expensive items on the menu in one restaurant. I asked the waiter if there was any charge for bread and gravy. He assured me there wasn’t, so that’s all I ordered. But he outsmarted me and I got a 2,500 yen bill for service, tax and entertainment and air conditioning fees.

Another thing: I can cut up my own steak. I’ve long suspected that the only reason some steak houses slice it up for you is so they can spread it around the grill so it looks like you’re getting more. I asked the manager of one place if the steaks are getting smaller. “No, he said. “It just looks that way because the waitresses are taller.”

My favorite course is dessert. Some of the finest pastries in the world are available in Tokyo restaurants. Biggest problem is trying to decide which of the goodies to select from the tempting display they roll out to your table. No sooner do I make my choice than I notice that the guy at the next table has out-ordered me. Unfortunate­ly, once you’ve bitten into something in Tokyo, you’re committed. They’re pretty stuffy about allowing you to exchange it for something else.

I do find music soothing at dinnertime. Except for the strolling violinists. They make me uneasy. So I never request a number. Trying to figure out how much to tip under such circumstances disturbs my digestion. In fact, I pretend not even to hear the music. I used to cover my cars with my hands when the musicians moved in on my table.

But some of those strolling violinists are pretty tricky, and I soon discovered that it was not safe to leave my plate unguarded. At one posh place the violinists gathered ground my table without the slightest bit of encouragement from me. Then I noticed the violin bows slithering across my plate, spearing the meatballs and stabbing the french fries.

The experience upset me so much that I forgot to pay the bill on the way out.