What Are Japanese "Family Restaurants" Like?

by Justin Sevakis,

Gareth asked:

I see a lot of restaurants in anime that basically look like American diners, but they seem like they're modeled after specific chains -- one of them clearly being Denny's. Is Denny's in Japan basically the same as in the US? What other restaurant chains are like this in Japan?

"Family restaurants" in Japan are similar, but not identical, to their nearest cousin, the American chain diner. Beginning in the 1970s, the Family Restaurant offered Japanese diners a pleasant place to take the family, particularly if you had a car, and they blossomed along with Japan's car culture. They're brightly lit, have uniformed waiters and waitresses, and brightly printed and marketed menus. They feel a bit like Denny's and similar restaurants in the US. In fact, Denny's IS one of the major chains of family restaurants in Japan. The logo is the same, but once you go inside, everything seems a little different.

For one, the kind of food they have is distinctly Japanese. Don't expect to go to one of these places and get a Denny's Grand Slam. These places specialize in Japanese comfort foods: think curry rice, omurice, Hamburg Steak and tonkatsu. But they also have Western fare too, like sandwiches, pasta and even paella. As with American diners, the range of food available varies wildly by chain, and there are lots of seasonal promotions. But overall, you don't go to a family restaurant for an amazing culinary experience, you go for decent food at a reasonable price.

Most family restaurants also have quite a wide range of desserts, not least of which is the ice cream parfait: a decadent layering of ice cream, whipped cream, fruit and other toppings, which I'm sure you've seen in anime. Pancakes are also popular. Aside from the food, family restaurants in Japan have that clean, grease-free feel you'd expect of the country. It can be a little disorienting to eat at a restaurant that an American might refer to as a "greasy spoon diner" only to not feel greasy afterwards.

There are quite a few family restaurant chains in Japan. Aside from Denny's, there's Royal Host (which tries to project a classy vibe), Gusto (budget-priced), Saizeriya (Italian themed), Coco's (EDIT: which I'm told is simply a diner and is not to be confused with CoCo Ichibanya, a curry restaurant with several American outposts), Bikkuri Donkey (the Surprise Donkey specializes in Hamburg steak), and many others. There's even a Japanese Big Boy chain. In major cities, they were ubiquitous: some chains at one point had over 1,400 locations!

I say "were" because the family restaurant boom has been on the decline since 2007. The worldwide economic crisis from that era, coupled with the decline in children, has changed Japan's eating habits. Low-end fast food chains have expanded their menus to entice more budget conscious people, while those who have more money to spend are veering towards more specialty restaurants with better food. It's not too far off from similar trends in North America, where chain casual sit-down restaurants like Big Boy and Applebees have fallen out of favor, and more specialty "fast casual" places like Jimmy John's, Shake Shack and Blaze Pizza have taken over the low end.

During my most recent trip to Japan there were noticeably fewer family restaurants than the last time I was there. In fact, in the areas of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto I visited, I only spotted a couple of Coco's and Saizeriya, but no Denny's, Royal Host or Bikkuri Donkey.

Personally, I'm partial to a Japanese-only chain called Jonathan's, which has a solid Japanese style or Western style breakfast (which isn't always the easiest thing to find in an on-the-go city like Tokyo), and a soda/tea/juice drink bar, which is something we take for granted in the West but is somewhat unique in Japan. Despite the fact that I wouldn't be too enamored with an American equivalent, for some reason that restaurant hit me just right within the context of Japan. But the only Jonathan's I happened across during this trip was from a train window while passing through a distant suburban area.

Family Restaurants are a casual setting that are perfect for casual meet-ups with friends, which might be why they're so popular with teenagers. They're popular with tourists too, since the big photo-filled menu makes ordering easy for non-Japanese speakers. Aside from fast food, they're probably the least intimidating way for a Westerner to eat in the less populated Japan. But these days, in the major cities, they're starting to become hard to find.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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