There is no denying that Tokyo’s nightlife and restaurant scene has taken a hit over the past 18 months. Even after coronavirus restrictions were eased back in March (before the current fourth state of emergency), some restaurants found that the regular crowds of customers were not forthcoming. Others simply fell by the wayside, joining the more than 700 bars and restaurants nationwide that filed for bankruptcy in 2020.
With pandemic-related restrictions set to last until Aug. 22, and the future still uncertain for Tokyo’s drinking and dining establishments, you’d be forgiven for assuming there’s a deficit of new eateries joining the culinary scene. Precisely speaking, that hasn’t been the case.
But opening during the pandemic has allowed restaurants to adapt to the “new normal” in advance, designing spaces with built-in takeout windows and distanced tables — and, perhaps crucially, planning for limited opening hours.
The cooking class
James Farrer, a professor of sociology at Sophia University, has noticed new openings by businesses with a strong focus on takeout.
“Some of these places can pivot to eat-in or sit-down service, but are also able to generate a walk-in business that has not been hampered by COVID-19 regulations,” he says. Citing the “roughly 125,000 commercial eateries in Tokyo” (fivefold New York’s estimated 25,000), Farrer explains that it is these large numbers, along with high rates of independent ownership and the small size of eateries, that set Tokyo’s dining landscape apart.
Thanks to those small rental spaces, he continues, it’s relatively easy to enter this sector. But it isn’t just convenience that drives growth: The status of enterprising restauranteurs in society as culinary shokunin (artisans) also contributes to the importance of eateries in general.
“There is a long history of gourmet culture in this city dating back to the Edo Period (1603-1868). People respect and expect good food,” Farrer says.
One new establishment that has appeared in the vicinity of Gakugei-Daigaku Station is Barluck. Its name is a pun on “barracks,” store manager Shinichiro Aoki explains, because it’s a “temporary hut” that’s occupying the bottom floor of a building scheduled to be demolished in 2022; “bar” because it serves alcohol; “luck” for everyone dining.
“We built it with takeout and distancing in mind,” he says, noting that he believes both these things will take root to some extent in the future.
Barluck’s opening has come in fits and starts. Originally scheduled to open in early January as a boutique kebab joint, this was soon pushed back to April, and then further into the future, almost making the business a nonstarter. The crucial “bar” element of Barluck is still hampered by the state of emergency.
“Delays in opening the store simply delay the return on investment and increase the risk,” Aoki says. “To put it bluntly, it’s all risk-taking. The issue is whether we can respond to the constant demand for change in these times.”
Barluck has teamed up with a local bar to provide mocktails, thus skipping over the de facto prohibition of alcohol, and will be opening Thursday through Saturday for a limited time until Aug. 22.
But the pandemic and subsequent state of emergencies are eating into the venue’s rental contract — and time is ticking. Aoki remains matter-of-fact: “We’ll close when the contract is up (next year),” he says. “If people like the concept, then after we’ll change it up a bit and open somewhere else.”
Across the city in Shitaya, Taito Ward, Rebon Kaisaiyu occupies a more permanent base — a former sentō (public bath) dating back to 1928. Though opening in July 2020, it hadn’t been designed with the pandemic in mind, manager Mako Oshikawa writes via email.
“The building itself had already been renovated,” she says. “Originally, we created a space with plenty of room to relax with a coffee, and so the seating arrangement was well spaced. Because of that we could open as it was without changing much.”
While Oshikawa says that historic cafes that have a sense of intrigue around them are attractive, she also notes that it is “difficult to make sales” because of a lack of domestic and inbound travel.
Over by Tokyo Station, things are looking a little bit different for Sezanne, the newly opened French restaurant (formerly Motif) at Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi. Its new executive chef, Daniel Calvert, was part of the reconceptualizing and design process from the beginning.
Due to the pandemic, the new restaurant’s whole design process had to be done remotely before Calvert, who was coming off a five-year stint at one-Michelin-starred Belon in Hong Kong, even arrived in Tokyo. “I hate technology at the best of times, and so it was a real struggle for me,” he recalls.
Sezanne opened on July 1. Like any other establishment, there are coronavirus restrictions to think about. “We actually just rolled out our vaccination scheme,” Calvert says, mentioning that the majority of staff have been vaccinated. Many people consider the guests and how they feel about going into restaurants, he continues, but people rarely consider the staff — the servers who are coming into contact with people every day.
“We’ve got to make sure our team is protected more than anything,” he says.
But even while following government restrictions and guidelines, Calvert highlights another aspect of dining out during the pandemic: escapism.
“People want to feel normal for a few hours, and if we can do that in any kind of way then we will.”
The power of neighborhoods
Away from the glitz of five-star eateries, one aspect of Tokyo that could very well have led to the continued proliferation of eateries are its many residential neighborhoods, often anchored by a train station.
With almost no areas in the capital where all that exists are office buildings, this relatively even distribution of residential and commercial areas is “the most important factor” in why many restaurants continue to open, according to Farrer.
“In areas of the city with a high proportion of residential housing, some restaurants have actually experienced an increase in traffic, since more people are working at home and fewer people are traveling away from home to eat,” he says, adding that it is in these neighborhoods where new openings are increasing.
“I believe in Tokyo and the power of neighborhoods,” Calvert says. “People really do cherish their neighborhood, and if there’s something in their neighborhood that they love, they support it as much as they can.”
“Tokyo eateries, like eateries anywhere, are not just in the food business, but in the people business,” Farrer says.
If there is a power to neighborhoods in Tokyo, then there is also most definitely a power in wining and dining.
“There’s all of these restrictions in place which are designed to curb the pandemic, but once it’s all over, people (will be) dining out again and again, just like they were before,” Calvert says, predicting a “big boom” in the future when restrictions are lifted.
At Barluck, Aoki is also positive about the future. “Eating out is also the most familiar and universal pastime,” he says. “Even if the coronavirus disaster continues, (eating out) may change its form, but food and drink will not disappear.”
Though many new cafes and restaurants have opened up fully within the coronavirus era, their situation is no less precarious. “We can’t predict the future,” Rebon’s Oshikawa says. “I really don’t know whether things will return to normal after the vaccine, or if this situation will continue next year, so I’m quite worried.”
“Owners are often very small-scale entrepreneurs who are not making any income beyond what they need to live, and often barely that,” Farrer says.
For Calvert, however, there is one constant, and that is the optimism that comes with serving good food.
“We will make you forget about the world for a second,” he says. “And that’s why restaurants are never going away.”
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