Sunday, October 22, 2006

The next big thing?

Add a new word to the crib sheet for staying current on restaurant trends, and put this one down in ink: izakayas, or the neighborhood restaurant-bars of Japan. Recent developments suggests they’re about to become the concept of the moment on the U.S. dining scene, with two very distinct followings.

The Japanese term was largely Greek to American foodies until a few weeks ago. But izakayas have been quietly infiltrating the U.S. market for several years, serving a subculture of Japanese students and young transplants within the States known as NEETs, or Needing Education, Employment, or Training. A major recent feature in The New York Times equated that portion of Japan’s youth to our slacker generation. It noted that these disaffected youngsters are coming to the U.S. in waves, for anywhere from a few months to several years, in hopes of finding themselves (read about it yourself at

The story noted that so many izakayas have opened in the city’s East Village, an anything-goes area known for avant-garde boutiques and body-piercing emporiums, that a section of neighborhood has been re-dubbed Little Tokyo. The places are presumably authentic izakayas, Japan’s equivalent of the United Kingdom’s gastro-pubs. Both serve a clientele of professionals and hipsters who want to have a few drinks after work or school, accompanied by something better than each country’s equivalent of nachos, chicken fingers or other standard bar foods. Izakayas catering to NEETs and other Japanese immigrants typically offer small plates of highly flavored Asian specialties, often grilled.

If the anticipated izakaya craze went no further than serving those ethnic strongholds, the concept would likely garner no more attention from the dining mainstream than Korean barbecues or Peruvian eateries. But recent signs say the format may be moving into the American mainstream.

The Las Vegas-scale neon alert was the opening a few weeks ago of an izakaya-style place by P.F. Chang’s, the company that all but minted gold by introducing many areas of the country to Chinese food they could trust, in a setting that bedazzled instead of conjuring fears of ptomaine poisoning. Its namesake brand has been one of the most successful restaurant ventures of recent years, and a lower-cost version call Pei Wei Asian Diner has similarly enjoyed the touch of Midas, though both concepts have wheezed a bit in recent months.

And now comes Taneko, in Scottsdale, Ariz., a test of what the company hopes will be its newest Asian over-achiever. The company has set it up as a izakaya for the American mainstream, or at least the more adventurous of its dining-out aficionados. Like the pub-restaurants of Japan, it puts a considerable emphasis on beer, spirits and cocktails. The kitchen offers plates of what Gourmet or Food Channel fans might recognize, like Kurobuta pork chops or kobe beef, along with sashimi, tempura and noodle dishes. The company has indicated that patrons will typically spend $30 a head.

Meanwhile, another chain is poking its sandaled toe into the market. Wann, an izakaya brand from Japan, plans to open a U.S. outpost in downtown Seattle, that city’s Post-Intelligencer reported this summer. The newspaper’s restaurant writer, Rebekah Denn, cited the arrival as evidence of izakayas emergence as a next big thing, or what she calls the “it kids” of the local dining scene. Two izakayas are already in operation there, she noted.

Back on the Right Coast, The New York Times reported just last Wednesday that a place called Izakaya Ten had opened in the city’s Chelsea neighborhood, a frequent arbiter of dining fashion.

The paper has tacitly (and uncharacteristically) acknowledged that its hometown may be lagging behind Los Angeles in the evolution of the trend. Note the observation of a July Times story that carried a Los Angeles dateline: “The Japanese izakaya — a pub featuring savory snacks downed with sake or cold beer — is starting to shove the sushi bar off its pedestal,” wrote Jennifer Steinhauer.

And the ultimate gauge of a trend’s arrival: A Google search of “izakayas” served up 16,900 hits. That’s almost in Paris Hilton territory.

1 comment:

  1. Some publications are just a little more ahead of the curve than others, e.g., this exerpt from a Nov. 7, 1988, article in Nation's Restaurant News:

    ... A striking example of the East-West parallelism is the nostalgia-driven emergence of izakaya chains in Japan, a retrogressive phenomenon that has been likened to the new-wave resurrection of 1950s-style diners in the United States.

    Reminiscent of old Japanese countryside pubs, the lively izakayas attract a youthful clientele by offering comparatively low-cost "grazing" menus of home-style snacks and beverages. "They are the Ed Debevic's of Japan," remarks foodservice consultant Keiko Sano, whose alternating bases are Yokohama and Los Angeles.

    While Ed Debevic's gum-smacking waitress lip off and wisecrack to entertain customers, servers at izakayas may holler and shout to keep alive the traditional Japanese concept of ikaga-yoi, whereby a restaurant's "wholesome freshness" is expressed through the boisterous repartee of its staff.

    Because izakayas are perceived as having a cross-cultural appeal for young consumers, those eating places "might be a good boat to ride into the American market," says Shigeaki Wada, president of the $480 million restaurant arm of the giant Seibu Saison Group. Seibu, whose annual sales of $22 billion make it one of Japan's largest and most diversified retailers, has already sailed into U.S. waters with its leading fast-food concept, Yoshinoya's Beef Bowl, which has 218 branches in metropolitan Tokyo and 31 in the Los Angeles area....