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Gourmet food for cheap, if you can stand for it

by Robbie Swinnerton

Here’s a scenario few restaurants would dare to dream of: All tables fully booked a month ahead, all year round; lines outside an hour before opening time; a prompt turnover of satisfied customers, with as many as three rotations per evening. And a bulging bottom line.

It sounds almost as unbelievable on the other side of the counter. Gourmet cuisine, prepared to order by chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants, featuring premium ingredients such as lobster, foie gras, duck or wagyū beef — all for a target price (for the food) of ¥3,000 per head.

There must be a catch. Indeed there is, though it’s one nobody’s complaining about: You have to eat standing up. And no matter how good the food, you dine and then leave, rather than lingering for a leisurely feast. Welcome to the alternative dining world of the Value Create group of restaurants.

Standing bars are nothing new in Japan and nor is the idea of eating on your feet, though most people associate it with cheap, slurp-and-run noodle counters at railway stations — and most definitely not with fine dining. It took the Value Create group to grab the concept, stand it on its head and run with it.

The first restaurant, called Ore no Italian, opened in Shimbashi in November 2011. Despite the name — ore no means “my” but is only used among men in very casual situations — it was not the usual cheap ‘n’ cheerful pasta and pizza joint. It also served quality starters and main dishes, such as beef fillet Rossini and foie gras.

It was an instant success, spawning clones across town. Before long (in May 2012), the first Ore no French opened in the plush streets of Ginza. The concept is the same: Skilled chefs headhunted from top restaurants prepare signature dishes with prime ingredients, and you eat for less than the price of a cheap bottle of plonk. Not surprisingly, this too has proved a massive hit.

The brain behind Value Create is not some whizz-kid MBA with wealthy parents and a hotline to venture capital. Takashi Sakamoto, already a success story as the founder and former CEO of Book Off (a chain selling secondhand CDs, DVDs and game software, as well as books), was 69 when he launched the first Ore no Italian.

Not content with his growing stable of Italian and French restaurants — there are now half a dozen in Ginza alone — he is turning his attention to Japanese cuisine. Ore no Yakiniku, in Kamata on Tokyo’s southernmost edge, specializes in grilled barbecue using top-of-the-range A5-grade wagyū beef. One floor up, Ore no Yakitori does the same with grilled chicken and side dishes ranging from uni (urchin) and karasumi (bottarga roe) to lobster.

But it has been the arrival in March of Ore no Kappo, also in Ginza, that has really set a new benchmark. Its executive chef is Hiroshi Shimada, whose CV includes a long stint at the exclusive, three-star Azabu Yukimura and whose current restaurant, a one-counter kappo (high-end traditional Japanese eatery) that also follows the affordable all-standing approach, has been bankrolled by Sakamoto.

This is just the start, though. Plans are under way to take Ore no Kappo to New York. It’s a gamble, but Sakamoto is confident the idea (and the business principles) will work anywhere. If it catches on, it could revolutionize Japanese cuisine — or at least the way it is priced — forever in America.

Ore no French: 8-7-9 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; (03) 6280-6435; r.gnavi.co.jp/e960806/ Ore no Kappo: 8-8-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; (03) 6280-6948 Value Create group restaurants: www.va-cr.co.jp/store