That’s right — you, the puny weakling reading this article! You think this is a story about vegan food? Wrong! This is a story about professional wrestling and meat!
It’s also a story about a small, family-run steakhouse in Tokyo whose name has acquired legendary status around the globe through word of mouth alone.
“We didn’t set out to become famous,” says Toshihiko Yamaguchi, who runs the Meguro branch of Steak House Ribera, which has become something of a pilgrimage site for professional wrestlers from all over the world. “Wrestlers from overseas just came here and took the place to their hearts.”
If you’re not a fan of wrestling, chances are you’ve never heard of Steak House Ribera. Yamaguchi’s father, Norikazu, opened the first branch, which has room for around 10 customers seated along a counter, in Tokyo’s Gotanda area in 1972. A second, which seats around 30 and is situated about a 20-minute walk from Meguro Station, opened five years later.
The elder Yamaguchi originally had no interest in wrestling, but his restaurant’s destiny was shaped by a random visit by American grappler Bruiser Brody in the late 1970s. Brody, who was on the lookout for some steak during a trip to Tokyo, was so enamored by Ribera that he asked Yamaguchi to make him a jacket with the restaurant’s name on it. Norikazu obliged and gave it to Brody as a present.
Brody began wearing the jacket at wrestling shows around the world, which aroused the curiosity of other wrestlers, who had never heard of Steak House Ribera. Gradually, they began to check the place out for themselves whenever they visited Tokyo, and Yamaguchi created more jackets to give to wrestlers as presents.
Before long, visiting Ribera had become a rite of passage for overseas wrestlers making the trip to Japan, and the satin bomber jacket with the bull’s-head logo on the breast became a must-have item for any self-respecting wrestler.
“Today’s wrestlers started off as fans, and they grew up seeing people like Brody and Hulk Hogan wearing Ribera jackets,” says the younger Yamaguchi. “It’s often said that for a wrestler, being given your own Ribera jacket is proof that you’ve made it.
“We don’t sell the jackets,” he continues. “We give them as presents, as a token of our appreciation. If we thought about it only in terms of publicity, the wrestlers would see through it. That’s not our intention. It started purely with us wanting to give Brody a present. More than the publicity, it made us happy to see Brody wearing the jacket in wrestling magazines. That feeling was what made us want to give out more.”
Yamaguchi says that “thousands” of wrestlers have visited Ribera over the years, and the photos that cover the walls, ceiling and shop front — including stars like Hogan, The Rock, The Undertaker and John Cena, all clad in Ribera jackets — bear testament to the restaurant’s standing in the wrestling world.
Also making several appearances in the photos alongside the wrestlers — at various stages of his life — is the younger Yamaguchi himself. Now 45, he grew up in an environment where visits from star grapplers from overseas were a regular occurrence, and he was even invited to stay twice at the Minneapolis home of wrestler Road Warrior Animal.
Having been around professional wrestlers his whole life, Yamaguchi says there is often a gap between their public image and reality.
“Among the wrestlers I met when I was younger, you would get two types,” he says. “Some played the part of villains, but in real life they were very serious. They were the complete opposite of how they appeared in the ring. Others would finish their match and then go out drinking and carousing in Roppongi, then get up for their next match without going to bed. Some looked like hellraisers, but actually they would go straight back to their hotel after their matches. It was interesting, the different types you would get.”
Yamaguchi says trouble was not unheard of during that period, and the police would have to be called in if wrestlers with a real-life grudge happened to show up at Ribera at the same time and things got out of hand.
Nowadays, wrestlers from overseas visit Ribera less frequently, with the number of shows they do in Japan far fewer than in the golden age of the 1980s and ’90s. The majority of Ribera’s current customers have little interest in wrestling, and many even wonder who the hulking characters flexing their muscles in the photos are.
Instead, they come for the simple menu, based around good-quality steak, which you can order in half- or full-pound cuts. The ambitious can tackle Ribera’s eating challenge: Those who can eat three servings of “jumbo” steak and rice within 30 minutes win ¥10,000 (and the meal for free).
For overseas wrestlers visiting Japan, however, Ribera will always be their spiritual home.
“I can’t count the number of wrestlers who have been here,” says the younger Yamaguchi. “There aren’t really any famous wrestlers from overseas who haven’t been here.
“It’s a real honor,” he continues. “It wasn’t something that we set out to make happen. We weren’t trying to use the wrestlers to become famous. They just liked the place. It makes me really proud that these people would come all the way here from their own countries.”