From time to time friends of mine who read this column have complained that I feature restaurants which only those with generous expense accounts can afford.
I tell them that they obviously spot-read my column, as a random check would give that impression, the odds being what they are. If they were constant readers, however, they would realize I do review restaurants that are easier on the pocket book at about the same ratio as they exist in the dining-out world.
Without looking into my file, I know I have reported on an Italian restaurant in Shinjuku that serves fine food at prices someone on a personal budget wouldn’t wince at. I also recall reviewing an excellent tonkatsuya in Ueno, the oldest soba shop in Tokyo — and everyone will agree soba is cheap — as well as a Vietnamese spot, among others. I even did a Tony Roma’s once, breaking my rule against writing about fast-food parlors, a rule which derives not from snobbery but from reason. Anyone who hungers after some fast-cooked food knows where he can find it. He also knows what he is getting. There is no need for me to point the way.
But places where the food is good and yet within the reach of a tight budget are hard to find in Tokyo. One day I went out hunting for one —one that I had not already written about. But first I polled my friends, especially those who have complained about the high price of restaurants reviewed, and they came up with nothing.
With no recommendations, I decided to go out and look, driving around with the hope of finding one by chance. I saw a lot of French names but nothing that looked like a candidate for this column. In Hiroo I ran across a Pilipino (sic) restaurant that looked interesting but decided to check my Filipino friends before trying it, I ended up lunching at one of my old standbys.
Finding one of those rare restaurants with cheap and good menus is tough enough, but there is an added problem that makes my task even more difficult. Such restaurants are already so popular that some don’t want the added burden of more clients which publicity would bring, I once went to an excellent German restaurant whose prices made my eyes bug out. This was something I would write about, I decided.
But when I talked to the proprietor, and he found out what I intended to do, he begged me not to subject his place to the publicity a column would bring. He was already so busy that he could not afford to take on additional customers. A look at the crowd wailing to get in convinced me.
The same thing happened at a very good steakery which had amazingly low prices for its succulent and flavorful U.S. beef. For the same reason the proprietor asked me not to publicize his place.
Some readers may complain that, as a restaurant columnist, my obligation is to them and not to proprietors who want anonymity. They have a point, but I find it difficult not to respect the wishes of a restaurant operator who knows that too many customers banging at his door is bound to bring down the level of service and food. A plethora of clients inevitably overburdens the waiters and the kitchen and brings down standards.
Then there is the effect on the diners to consider. Who can eat at leisure when he sees people waiting for his table? I know I cannot linger over my coffee when I see customers in line. Some inner urge and the impatience of the help force me to give up my table as soon as possible.
There is a good reason why restaurant prices are high in Tokyo and good restaurant prices are higher. Tokyo rents are up there among the stars, for one thing. Then good menus need good chefs, who are very expensive, and the best ingredients, also costly, and good service requires well-trained waiters, for whom the proprietor has to pay. Add rent, labor and food costs and you come up with expense-account menus.
But I haven’t given up. I still want to find that little hole-in-the-wall that serves excellent food at fast-food prices. I have some possibilities, as I have heard of a couple of restaurants that may be worth a column. And I still have to look into that Pilipino place in Hiroo.
Meanwhile, I would appreciate suggestions from the readers. The trouble is that those readers who know of such restaurants want to keep them to themselves. They don’t want me to let out the location of their secret places to the hungry with thin purses for two obvious reasons: 1. The place will get too crowded. 2. The proprietor may get delusions of grandeur and commit economic suicide by raising his prices beyond what the law of diminishing returns allows. I can understand that reasoning.