There are two types of people who frequent family restaurants: Family types, and people who are too intimidated by real restaurants. Starting out as the latter on my first timid trips to Tokyo in the late 90s and evolving into the former with my daughter Hana’s birth about four years ago, I feel I have come full circle.
Today our family restaurant of choice (I usually say “fami resu,” to show off my Japanese abbreviation skills) is Royal Host, mainly because one of their branches is right around the corner from our house. Other big draws are the reasonably attractive kids’ menu and the fact that childish behavior is expected and tolerated. Unlike other family restaurants, however, they stop short of having a bouncing castle in the middle of the place, which lets the grown-ups hold on to the illusion that they are visiting a real restaurant.
Like the kids’ menu, the one for adults is very well photographed, but it is safe to say that Royal Host boasts none of the reasons why Tokyo is considered the world’s culinary capital. One of the menu’s mainstays is a massive dessert called Yogurt Germany. For us Germans it is what Mount Fuji is to the Japanese: You will feel obliged to try it once and then make up lame excuses why you won’t repeat (“It’s an ancient German tradition to have Yogurt Germany only once in your life, you know?”).
“It mostly contains stuff you couldn’t sell at a ¥100 store yet the ritual of choosing yourself from a box presented by a friendly authority figure in a neat uniform makes those gifts special”
The biggest draw, of course, is the box of toys that is brought to the table, for the youngest patrons to pick a toy to keep. It mostly contains stuff you couldn’t sell at a ¥100 store yet the ritual of choosing yourself from a box presented by a friendly authority figure in a neat uniform makes those gifts special, cherished even after leaving the restaurant, if they last that long.
We visit Royal Host so often that we are a little concerned Hana might equate the word “restaurant” exclusively with RoyHo. So we sometimes travel to Denny’s, which sadly hasn’t set up shop in our immediate neighborhood. Denny’s also has a free-toys box, but they either have very complex policies for getting it out, or the staff are more forgetful than the Royal Host waitrons. We have experienced this neglect, unintentional or not, at several branches, so it’s neither an isolated incident nor a local peculiarity. If I were more of an activist, I might take the issue to the press: “Hafu child denied cheap plastic crap at Japanese fami resu!”
It does not pose much of a problem to us, though. Our hafu child does not do Japanese restraint. If she sees the box behind the counter (and she will see it), she will simply rush there, grab it and bring it to our table herself. Then the usual sumimasen battle between the staff and me ensues, to determine who is sorrier for the mess we are in. In any case, Hana wins.
On our last visit to our friendly neighborhood Royal Host, something happened that gave me thought: the toy box came, Hana went through it – and she couldn’t find anything that she didn’t already own. Have we taken this thing too far? Are we a bunch of shameless hedonists, nonstop splurging on free toys and hamburg steak with ketchup faces? Are we spoiling our only child silly at The Restaurant?
Fortunately we are not limited to eateries for getting free toys. Hana’s doctor also has a box on offer that she will have access to after soldiering through the more stressful treatments, like getting shots. She is not very keen on those, but sometimes the promise of free toys can be stronger than fear. The other day I lost my cool with her. “Calm, Understanding, Carefully Explaining Dad” turned into “Angry, Threatening Dad” (oh, come on, we have all been there). I told her that if she does not stop doing her own stunts, she might cut off all her fingers, and only if we are lucky enough to find them under the sofa and between its cracks, the doctor might be able to sew them back on, with lots of stitches. I realized that she may not have the concept of surgical stitches yet, so I added: “And you will have to get several shots, before and after.”
I regretted it immediately, fearing I had been too descriptive this time, bracing for my next incarnation as “Backpedaling, Crying-child-comforting Dad.” But she just gave me a big, bright smile, exclaiming: “And toys!” And off she was, preparing her next stunt.
Hana’s most cherished possession among her collection of freebies is a pair of green plastic sunglasses she got from her doctor (after a routine vaccination; her fingers are fine). She wears it with the same pride some of her little friends reserve for their expensive designer sunglasses. At first we were worried she might embarrass herself. We pondered shelling out some serious yen to buy her cooler glasses, making her playground-competitive. But it turns out, Hana doesn’t care. Neither do the other kids. Everybody considers her plastic sunglasses to be as cool as everybody else’s. So, we are saving that money for another wild night out at Royal Host. Maybe we will even do something special, throw in a bus ride, and head all the way to the next Denny’s.