A city with the world on its plates


It is highly unlikely that Commodore Perry or any other of his crew had epicurean tastes, but the arrival of the Black Ships in 1853 signaled the start of an influx to Japan of foreign — specifically Western — food. With the subsequent opening of treaty ports and the Meiji Era’s heady days of “bunmei kaika (civilization and enlightenment),” Japanese eating habits would never be the same.

Chocolate, ice cream, beer, wine, butter, soup and curry: A host of “exotic” foods made their first appearance in Japan at this time, though not all of them gained immediate popular acceptance.

However, no change was bigger than the erosion of the taboo on eating meat, especially after the emperor himself proclaimed in the early 1870s that he considered the shunning of animal flesh “an unreasonable tradition.” Restaurants serving gyu-nabe and its close successor, sukiyaki, became the height of fashion for Japan’s growing middle class.

Tokyo’s first Chinese restaurant opened in 1883, and its first beer hall on July 4, 1899. A whole new cuisine was taking form, born of Western inspiration but adapted subtly (or not) to suit local sensibilities.

Beef stew (sitchu in Japanese); hashed beef (hayashi-raisu); curry with rice (karei-raisu); pork cutlets (tonkatsu); and omelets (omuretsu): Today these seem tired and dusty dishes well past their sell-by dates, but in their day they were the cutting-edge, gourmet dishes of Taisho Era Tokyo.

For many years, the only reliable sources of passably authentic European food were the diplomatic banquets and the dining rooms of top hotels. Among the latter, the first of international note was the Imperial Hotel, the original version of which went up in 1890. But it was the Imperial’s second incarnation, famously designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, that became the city’s primary watering-hole for locals and foreign visitors alike.

War and its bitter, hard-scrabble aftermath were hardly conducive to the pursuit of the pleasures of the palate — although Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his centurions of the Allied Occupation certainly lived the easy life. They also inculcated an entire generation of Japanese children with a taste for school snacks of bread and milk — the same people who would later be nourishing their children on the teat of fast-food restaurants.

When it came to cordon-bleu fare, though, choices were severely curtailed, since all hotels were requisitioned. But at least there was the Crescent, a massive baronial club established in 1947 that soon acquired a reputation for laying on seriously weighty banquets for cosmopolitan old-money Japan (not to mention Imperial family members).

By the 1960s, Japan was back on its feet. The world beat a path to Tokyo for the ’64 Olympics . . . and kept returning. A slew of new hotels had been spawned — notably the Okura, the Palace and the old Hilton (the present Capitol Tokyu) — each with French, or at the very least, “continental” restaurants of distinction.

However, the pivotal event of the decade for those with any interest in food or electronics was the opening in 1966 of the Sony Building at the Sukiyabashi Crossing in the capital’s Yurakucho district. Besides showcasing its technological expertise, the company — and especially its patrician chairman, Akio Morita, scion of a shoyu-brewing family — was keen to signal its sophistication in other areas. It was arranged for the new building to incorporate not one, but two top-class restaurants.

From France, the renowned Maxim’s de Paris was invited to build a replica of its original premises, in full Belle Epoque style, but on a slightly reduced scale. Top French chefs were brought over to ensure the cuisine was in no way inferior to the original. It was the talk of the town.

The company made a similar arrangement with an equally respected Florentine establishment. The result, Sabatini di Firenze, was the first place in the country to serve cucina of quality — and to demonstrate to Japan’s inveterate snobs that Italy has a cooking tradition to rival that of France.

The idea of hooking up with a Michelin-starred restaurant was copied by the New Otani Hotel, which installed a branch of the venerable Tour d’Argent, complete with the same system of numbering the ducks they serve. No mere clone this, it wasn’t long before it was rated on a par with or (whisper it) even better than the parent operation.

Then, in the 1970s, many young Japanese chefs began to make the pilgrimage to Europe (mostly to France) to learn at the source. One of the first to take this route was Kozo Matsuo, who, having completed his grand tour of the Michelin-starred kitchens of Paris, Lyon and Monte Carlo, returned to Tokyo in 1980 to open his own restaurant. Many others have followed, but the eponymous Chez Matsuo, in the leafy, well-heeled Shoto area of Shibuya, was the first establishment of its kind to boast its own villa. Perfect for discreet private functions, it became a favorite of both the then Crown Prince and his bride-to-be.

As the bubble economy began to rocket, the number of top-flight restaurants in Tokyo grew exponentially. Chez Inno in Kyobashi, Apicius in Yurakucho and the exquisitely polished Co^te d’Or in nether Mita are just a few of the names that must be mentioned. The process reached its ultimate pinnacle, its folly of follies, with the opening of Taillevent-Robuchon, two names in haute cuisine that are so larger than life that they had to create a whole cha^teau in Yebisu Garden Place to house them both.

But by that time, the star of French food was no longer alone in Tokyo’s gastronomic sky. It was the Italian tricolor flag that was hanging everywhere in town, and the hot new restaurants were sporting Italian names and decor. Aquapazza, Aroma Fresca, Cucina Hirata, Acca and Riva degli Etruschi: Who says pasta can’t be sexy?

Meanwhile, Tokyo has also embraced the new international style of fusion cuisine associated by some with California and Hawaii, by others with Sydney or London. The same process of cross-fertilization is being applied with no less verve to Japanese and Chinese food, too. The city has become a bubbling laboratory of taste.

But the end of the old millennium appears to have brought greater equilibrium to the restaurant scene. It is now entirely possible to sit down to top-quality food (and, just as importantly, wine) without having to put up with excessive prices, rigid formality and exclusive settings. Consequently, over the course of 150 years, Tokyo has become one of the great cities for gourmet eating. Bon appetit.