LONDON – For many Britons, Japanese food has long been perceived as expensive and exotic.
The first Japanese restaurant, The Ajimura, opened in London in 1972, and throughout that decade and into the 1980s there was a steady increase in the number of such establishments.
But they were largely the preserve of Japanese expatriates sent to London during Japan’s boom years.
In the 1990s, as more Britons became adventurous, Japanese food grew in popularity.
At the same time, some Japanese restaurants found they had to reach out beyond their traditional clientele as Japanese companies slimmed down their overseas operations during the recession.
However, food experts say the real breakthrough for Japanese cuisine has come in the last few years.
There has been strong growth in the number of Japanese eateries across Britain and noodle and sushi bars can be found in most towns up and down the country.
Analysts believe the move toward Japanese cuisine has been prompted by the proliferation of relatively cheap chain restaurants, such as Wagamama, which is modeled on Japanese ramen shops.
The increase can also be attributed to a growing awareness of the health benefits of Japanese food.
Despite the expansion, there are some in the industry who claim it has come about by sacrificing quality and authenticity.
Peter Grove, editor of Menu, a trade magazine for Asian restaurants, says his database contains nearly 400 Japanese restaurants. This is double the figure of five years ago.
“Japanese restaurants are growing rapidly, albeit from a small base, and it echoes the growth of Thai restaurants about five years ago,” he said.
“They have taken some time to break out of London. The impetus for the growth has been groups such as Wagamama which have made people realize that Japanese food isn’t so mysterious.
“It is also seen as a healthy alternative and very fashionable among young professionals.”
David Crosby, a writer for the Eat-Japan magazine, said his publication lists around 320 restaurants, 200 of which are in the London area.
He believes many Britons have become attracted to Japanese food because of its association with the rich and famous.
“There are several high-profile restaurants like Nobu which people aspire to visit. They are seen as glamorous and trendy, as well as being healthy,” he said.
Conversely, cheaper and plainer Japanese food may have also attracted more Brits.
“The chain restaurants like Wagamama, although not really 100 percent Japanese and adjusting food for Western tastes, have made it less intimidating for people,” Crosby said.
He dismisses fears that the expansion has diminished quality and adds that more choice is a “good thing.”
Indeed, a recent survey by restaurant guide Zagat placed Wagamama as the No. 1 restaurant in London, beating the likes of Nobu and celebrity haunt the Ivy.