Like so many casual eating/drinking spots opening in these cash-strapped times, Maruni keeps things simple and cheap. It’s basically a standing bar serving yakiniku barbecue, with a brightly lit interior and retro wooden facade. What sets it apart from just about any other place of its kind is that the old- fashioned look is not just skin deep.
Maruni occupies a two-story wooden building that — on the outside anyway — looks a little different now from when it was built, back in 1927. Until last year, this was a functioning rice merchant’s store (you can still see what it used to look like on Google Street View). It’s a classic and one of the last of its kind in this part of Shinbashi, and that is why the local authorities have slapped a preservation order on it. Obviously, City Hall has no say over how it’s decorated inside.
No attempt has been made to deck it out with period fixtures and fittings. One wall is painted black, the other scarlet. And instead of cluttering the compact floor space with tables and chairs, the only furniture is half a dozen large oil drums painted in the same bold colors and decorated with traditional montsuki (kimono crest) motifs.
These are not just for resting your elbow and drinks on — infact there are clever wire holders fitted down the side where you can place your beer glass out of harm’s way. Set into the top of each oil drum is a small, square irori grill. Once this has been filled with glowing charcoals, you order your meat and cook it yourself, at your own pace.
At the back, the raised area of the original shop has been kept intact. This now houses a minuscule bar and prep area. A narrow counter has been slotted in here, just big enough for about eight people at a pinch, with each place equipped with tiny individual grills.
There’s little to eat besides meat. But here, too, Maruni puts some daylight between itself and the competition. First, it’s all beef and it all comes from domestic wagyu cattle. At the same time, the menu — a blackboard on the wall — features several less-common cuts.
Alongside the ubiquitous kalbi ribs, rosu (rib eye) and tan (tongue) offered by just about any yakiniku joint in the land, you will find a range of organ meats and less mainstream cuts, such as megane, which is taken from the hip area.
If you’re not sure what bit of the cow you are getting, you can always refer to the black silhouetted images of cattle on the wall. Manager Hattori-san worked in New York for a while, and speaks enough English to be able to point you to the relevant part of the animal’s anatomy.
But there is more to this place than initially meets the eye. If you want to linger longer and take the weight off your feet, head up to the second floor (though you will need to have made a reservation ahead of time). At the top of the steep, dark, creaky stairs you emerge as if into a different century. The two small rooms with their tatami floors and fusuma screens have been preserved virtually in their original state. Apart from the fitted metal window frames, you could be back in the 1960s.
Here you sit on zabuton cushions at low tables equipped with burners. This allows you to do most of the cooking yourself, whether as sukiyaki, shabu-shabu or even motsu-nabe, a simmered hotpot featuring various organ meats. To complement all this meat intake, there are a few Korean condiments, such as spicy kimchi or shanja clams
To match its distinctly different atmosphere and menu, this second-floor dining room has a different name, Zaku (written punningly with the Japanese characters for “place” and “eat”). But they’re both part of the same operation, an offshoot of a popular yakiniku restaurant in Komazawa (Setagaya-ku) called Shibaura, named after the area where Tokyo’s wholesale meat market is located. You can tell these people are serious about their beef.
If, after an evening at Maruni or Zaku, you are craving something sweet and want to remain in a retro mood, then head around the corner for a piping-hot snack of traditional taiyaki. Sakuraya, a small chain with four other outlets in the city, has taken over the ground floor of an old, seen-better-days three-story building on the main street. Here the young crew turns out a range of the fish-shaped waffles, with fillings from the typical adzuki bean paste to matcha green tea and even a version stuffed with sweet yam (don’t use the Japanese word “imo”; just ask in English for “potato”).
Sakuraya 1-4-1 Shinbashi, Minato-ku; (03) 3571-8765; ktcktc.com/sakuraya
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