Entering a restaurant alone in Japan can be a little daunting, especially if it’s behind a closed door or a noren curtain. Which is why it’s nice to have an excuse to enter a hole-in-the-wall bar for the first time and know that everyone already knows why you’re there and just how you found the place.

For the past five years, the Yebisu Beer x Ebisu Food Grand Prix has provided me with that excuse. Organized by Ebisu Shimbun, a local web-based newspaper, the annual competition is a great opportunity to discover restaurants around Ebisu that you may normally never find, while making friends you may never have otherwise — it’s certainly helped me find a place in my local community.

Spicing up the competition: Spicy cumin-fried chicken wings at Ojinjyo (left) and tofu with a cold, but spicy, tantan minced pork sauce at Noodle Bar Es. | ANDREW LEE
Spicing up the competition: Spicy cumin-fried chicken wings at Ojinjyo (left) and tofu with a cold, but spicy, tantan minced pork sauce at Noodle Bar Es. | ANDREW LEE

For about a month, selected restaurants and bars in the vicinity of Ebisu offer one special food item and a glass or bottle of Yebisu brand beer for ¥1,000. The dish must have been specially prepared for the event and pair well with the beer. Customers then vote for their favorite three dishes and the winner is awarded the Grand Prix. This year’s event runs for 49 days from Sept. 13 to Oct. 31 with 51 participating venues.

I discovered the event in 2015, its first year, when I picked up the orange Grand Prix brochure in my local watering hole, Standing Wine Bar Q, which was participating in the competition. Its dish that year was a juicy hamu katsu (ham cutlet) that went perfectly with the beer. As I was about to order my second glass, I thought: “Why don’t I get my next beer at one of the other places on the list?” Two weeks later, I had been to all 20 participating places and my relationship to the neighborhood I’ve been living in changed forever.

For many local residents — myself included — the event is now an annual pilgrimage. Thus far I’ve managed to visit all the venues on the list each year, often hitting three or four places in one night. Over time, I’ve gotten to know many of the proprietors and bar locals as I make my rounds; during the third year I walked into Fuca, a charming izakaya pub that won second place in 2016, and a man called out “Uwasa no gaikokujin da!” (“It’s that foreigner I’ve been hearing about!”)

It turns out he was the creator of the Grand Prix, Kenji Takahashi. Sitting in Fuca again recently, he tells me that he created the event to revitalize the neighborhood, and that one way to do so was to discover a meibutsu (a dish for which an area is famous) for Ebisu.

“Ebisu is famous for its beer, but there is no one food it’s famous for,” explains Takahashi. “But, (because of this annual event) local restaurants are now thinking seriously about what goes well with the local beer and competing with each other. Because of that, the beer-set dishes are really improving, and this year the quality is very high.”

Takahashi hopes that the stores which are voted as the best each year will permanently add the dishes to their menus and, in turn, that customers will make a special trip to try them.

Checklist: Forty-three places down for the author and eight to go! | ANDREW LEE
Checklist: Forty-three places down for the author and eight to go! | ANDREW LEE

So far it seems to be working. Fuca’s 2016 dish, a wonderful fermented māpō dōfu with medicinal spices, which took second place, is still on the menu and definitely worth trying for its lip-tingling spiciness. Other restaurants that have also kept winning dishes on their menus include Tokyo Robin, which won the very first Grand Prix in 2015 with its surprising omurice (omelette-topped rice) with Thai green curry, and Mori no Tsukue, which has taken a prize each year and added all its Grand Prix dishes to its menu.

The event continues to grow, and, after the first year, it was clear to its organizers that many participants attempt to visit every place on the list and share their progress online. The event has since evolved into a stamp rally, creating a competitive aspect for customers, too. Those who collect 30 stamps or more can attend the afterparty, where the results of the Grand Prix are announced, and perhaps a new beer revealed, as it was in 2017.

It’s not uncommon now to spot people in participating venues comparing how many stamps they’ve collected, which adds a sense of camaraderie to the event. Currently I’m 43 places through this year’s list and have bumped into several people that are also well on their way to finishing. So if you happen to find yourself in Ebisu before the end of the month, pick up a brochure, stick your head through the noren and say “hi” to us locals over a cold beer or two.

To take part in the stamp rally, brochures can be found at any of the restaurants listed at ebisu-gp.com.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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