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Hagi: Real-deal burgers from 1970

by J.J. O'Donoghue

There can be no doubting that Snow White’s beauty derived in part from the Seven Dwarfs’ lack of it. But what they lacked in looks, they made up for in charm. This is how you should approach Hagi, a cafe of considerable charm and irretrievable beauty. Located beside a storm drain in a drab neighborhood west of Kyoto Station, there is nothing about this oddball cafe to tie it to its neighborhood or even this era. Architecturally it would look more at home in Bavaria; temporally it is dated to circa 1970.

But what makes Hagi worth visiting is the master, the coffee and the hamburgers. The cafe is tied together by a horseshoe-shaped counter, sunk into the floor and within which the master rules. Usually attired in a dicky bow, he takes industriousness to a higher level, working a row of Bunsen burners brewing siphon coffee as if there might be a Nobel Prize for his efforts. Between the door, an ancient TV and a bicycle wheel is a giant coffee roaster, and when the master starts it up the neighborhood rattles and smells of coffee. Everywhere you look there is something to see: a collection of retro model racing cars, a fallen fake stag’s head, a collection of oversized toy hamburgers.

Which brings us back to the food: The burgers are the real deal, delicious and accompanied by fries, a side salad and coffee. Amid all the chains and the rhetoric of change, let’s hope institutions such as Hagi carry on regardless.

80-1 Nishiura-cho, Nishinosho, Kisshioun, Minami-ku, Kyoto; 050-5797-9575; open 7 a.m.-8 p.m. (closed Weds.); nearest station Nishioji; smoking OK; lunch set ¥880 including coffee; English menu; no English spoken.