LOS ANGELES - Once considered something of a fringe movement reserved for geeky comic book fanatics, “anime” culture has definitely found a place in the United States over the years.
Ask any one of the thousands of fans who recently attended the Anime Expo in Los Angeles, and you might conclude that it was a cultural cornerstone.
Drawing from that evolving popularity, Royal/T maid cafe, shop and art space debuts the “cosplay” (costume play) restaurant idea to U.S. audiences hungry for a taste of the latest in Japanese trends.
Launched this spring, Royal/T in Culver City, Calif., offers not only the maid cafe experience made popular in Akihabara, Tokyo, but imports and introduces “Japanese cool” in the form of art, music, fashion and cuisine.
Susan Hancock, owner of Royal/T, fell in love with Japanese artists like Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara while a collector in New York and wanted to create a space to exhibit her passion for modern Japan.
“I had a lot of Japanese art and it made me happy, so I decided to share it with people,” Hancock said of her venture. “I wanted to show how much Japanese culture has influenced our society with anime (animation).”
Already, the maid cafe has attracted enthusiasts who are familiar with the concept and want to experience a cosplay restaurant firsthand.
“I read a lot of ‘manga’ (comics) and watch anime, so I really wanted to come check it out,” said Roberto Marquez, a junior high school teacher from Pasadena, Calif. “It’s very interesting. I came for the coffee but I can definitely see myself coming back!”
While the cafe certainly caters to the anime and cosplay niche market, the venue equally emphasizes the art space and shop, thus veering from traditional genre cafes in Japan. And, unlike its Tokyo counterparts, Royal/T downplays the fetish aspect that Americans sometimes associate with cosplay restaurants.
Indeed, maids at this cafe will not blow on customers’ food or call them “master.” They will, however, eagerly chat about their favorite anime show and discuss the art collection.
Katherine Steel, one of the Royal/T maids, jumped at the opportunity to interact with fans of Japanese culture and cosplay on a daily basis.
“I love working here,” said Steel, 25. “I get to meet tons of people and we have a lot of interesting customers because Royal/T brings in really creative individuals. It’s different from other waitress jobs because you have to be in the know.”
According to the owner, the Royal/T idea has brought in a broad demographic, including artists thinking about expanding their own collection, businesspeople who desire the Japanese-French fusion fare for lunch, and families that are simply curious about the concept.
The unique Japanese-theme art/food/shop idea is precisely what brought Melissa Paulo of Covina, Calif., to Royal/T.
“I like the idea of a gallery and food space,” she said. “I love Murakami’s work especially, and I think the art space is absolutely beautiful.”
Hancock relies on her ties with the Japanese art community to bring in musicians, pieces for her rotating collection and special items for her shop. The space also serves as a venue to showcase rising talent, art forums and socials, but her focus always lies with “new” Japan.
Royal/T may attract a number of separate niche markets, but much like its space, they all exist harmoniously together, and fans of the culture are discovering a place where they can find what they like and explore something new, all within the realm of “Japanese cool.”