Every evening at around 5:30 p.m. in Fukuoka, a curious transformation takes place along the city’s main boulevards. Out of secluded parking lots and closed-off garages, wooden food carts emerge, pulled through the streets by their owners to selected locations across the city.
Nakasu, Nagahama, Tenjin, Hakata: Each district has its own collection of these carts, known as yatai.
After arriving at their spots, the owners, called yatai-san, duly unfold their carts, which become, until the early hours of the morning, makeshift restaurants that attract crowds in their hundreds. Yatai are the original pop-up restaurants, a mainstay of the Fukuoka food scene, renowned as much for their fare as their atmosphere, in which customers meet, greet and dine shoulder to shoulder.
Despite their current popularity, the shining star of yatai culture has been in decline for the past half-century. Immensely popular following World War II, the hygiene of these pop-up stalls was brought into question prior to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and under new regulations yatai were closed across much of Japan.
While the stalls dwindled on Honshu, in Fukuoka they proved stubborn in their ability to survive and it remains the only city where yatai can be found in such abundance. Fukuoka’s yatai were not immune to the decline, however, and even here, numbers have dropped significantly in recent years. Successive local governments prevented the opening of yatai in new locations and in 1995, a law was introduced stating that ownership of yatai could only be passed on to a direct family member. If an owner closed shop with no descendent, that spot was off the market for good.
Until, that is, recently. Yatai have become such an attraction for those visiting Fukuoka that in the autumn of 2016, a competition was held to award new yatai licenses for the first time in more than two decades. A group of 28 yatai that had been operating illegally (mainly under other people’s names) were told to close their premises by the end of March 2017 to make way for a wave of new ones.
One hundred and eight applications were received for the 28 spots and out of this melee emerged Remy Grenard, a Fukuoka resident since 2001 and the first non-Japanese yatai owner. His yatai, Chez Remy, which opened on April 28, is French themed and serves a delightful array of small dishes from the European continent.
Grenard commands the yatai with ebullient energy, bouncing between Japanese, English and his native French with ease. Sporting Breton stripes and a flat cap, he is a popular local figure and seems to attract both Japanese and non-Japanese in equal measure. Most are drawn to the yatai for the first time out of curiosity and then return for the food and atmosphere, both of which are high in quality.
The staple of the Fukuoka yatai scene is, of course, ramen, and on this front Chez Remy surprises with a French take on the classic dish. Not wanting to compete directly with the local specialty, Grenard created Ramen Bouillabaisse; ramen noodles bathed in the iconic Provencal soup from Marseille. Instead of char sui, the soup is topped with mussels, fish, shrimp and potatoes. The mix is effective but is unlikely to usurp the tonkotsu classic in the immediate future.
Chez Remy excels for those with a vegetarian diet. Typical yatai tend to have a poor offering of vegetarian cuisine, which limits the experience for those who do not eat meat. For vegetarians, the quiche of the day is an excellent option, made each morning at Grenard’s bakery, La Tartine. Likewise, the pumpkin gnocchi are delicious, served in a grillade pan and packed with flavors that evoke both the rural campagne and the montagne. Most popular of all, perhaps unsurprisingly, are the escargot, cooked in butter and only ¥700 a plate.
Chez Remy can be found in front of Loft, 4-9 Watanabedori, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka; open 6:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. (L.O. midnight); www.mercihakata.com; food from ¥300 a plate, drinks from ¥400