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What a Japanese Neighborhood Izakaya Is Like

This is great and I loved it to bits: a 15-minute video from the Life Where I’m From YouTube channel about a tiny izakaya (13 seats!) in Tokyo owned and operated by a woman called “Mama” by her regulars.

When Mama is busy, regulars at this izakaya will serve themselves, get their own beers, get their “bottle-keep” and make their own drinks. They’ll also help out Mama-san by serving other customers as well. […] Bottle keep is when a customer buys a bottle and the shop holds on to it for them. Then the next time they visit they can drink from that bottle again.

I’ve got lots of thoughts about this and connections to make! The izakaya’s casual help-yourself atmosphere reminded me of a post I made here more than 20 years ago called Business Lessons From the Donut and Coffee Guy.

“Next!” said the coffee & donut man (who I’ll refer to as “Ralph”) from his tiny silver shop-on-wheels, one of many that dot Manhattan on weekday mornings. I stepped up to the window, ordered a glazed donut (75 cents), and when he handed it to me, I handed a dollar bill back through the window. Ralph motioned to the pile of change scattered on the counter and hurried on to the next customer, yelling “Next!” over my shoulder. I put the bill down and grabbed a quarter from the pile.

I followed that up with another post a few years later:

I get my occasional donut in another part of town now, but I noticed something similar with my new guy. Last Friday, the woman in front of me didn’t order anything but threw down a $20, received a coffee with two sugars a moment after she’d stepped to the window, and no change. As they chatted, I learned that the woman pays for her coffee in advance. The coffee guy asked her if she was sure she owed today. “Yep,” she replied, “It’s payday today; I get paid, you get paid.” Handy little arrangement.

Get to know your customers and trust them — it’s a simple thing that even some small businesses never master.

If this place was on my commute home, I would definitely be a regular — it seems more like someone’s living room than a bar. But there are definitely spots with similar vibes in all sorts of places in the world. Last year, I went to a restaurant in Philadelphia called Her Place that also felt like this. From my sabbatical media diet:

A unique dining experience that’s not unlike going over to someone’s house for a dinner party. There are two seatings a night, at 6:00 and 8:30; all parties are seated at the same time. It’s a set menu with no substitutions and everyone in the restaurant is served at the same time. Every course or two, the chef quiets the diners to explain what’s coming up, who cooked it, where the ingredients are from, and anything else she thinks is relevant. It’s operationally smart and creates a great dining environment. Esquire just named it one of the best new restaurants in America.

Great meal and experience. I felt like a regular even though I’d never been there before. Speaking of, I wrote about being a regular back in 2013:

This is a totally minor thing but I love it: more than once, I’ve come in early in the evening, had a drink, left without paying to go run an errand or meet someone somewhere else, and then come back later for another drink or dinner and then settle my bill. It’s like having a house account without the house account.

I really miss that place — I moved away several years ago now but went back to visit as often as I could. But Covid (and an asshole landlord) killed it.

One last thing Mama’s izakaya reminded me of is when I visited a restaurant in Istanbul called Meşhur Filibe Köftecisi.

While I waited for my food, I noticed an order of köfte going out of the kitchen…to a diner at the restaurant across the street. When he was finished, the staff at that place bussed the dishes back across the way. Meanwhile, my meal arrived and the köfte were flavorful and tender and juicy, exactly what I wanted…no wonder the place across the street had outsourced their meatballs to this place. I’d noticed the owner, the waiter, and the cook drinking tea, so after I finished, I asked if I could get a tea. The owner nodded and started yelling to a guy at the tea place two doors down. A few minutes later, a man bearing a tray with four glasses of tea arrived, dropping one at my table and the other three for the staff. Just then, a server from the place across the street came over to break a 100 lira bill. Me being a big nerd, this all reminds me of Unix and the internet, all of these small pieces loosely joined together to create a well-functioning and joyous experience. There’s only one thing on the menu at Meşhur Filibe Köftecisi, but you can get anything else within yelling distance. I declined dessert…who knows where that would have come from.

(via andy, who correctly guessed this was up my alley)

Discussion  9 comments

Andy Baio
🔮 💯 ⭐️  comment

I knew you'd like this. Here's part of what I wrote when sending it to you the other day: "So many little things in this video that maximize happiness over profitability, lost when businesses try to grow or franchise or maximize profitability... If your customers know your name and bring you bday gifts, you’re doing something very right."

Richard Heppner Jr.

Gee. A place where everybody knows your name... and posted just when kottke.org launches comments. How appropriate!

Jeff Koke
👍 👍 🆒  comment

My wife and I had a favorite bartender at our local taco joint until recently. He always remembered us and was funny and conversational, and as a bonus, he'd make our drinks a wee bit stronger, and occasionally "forget" to charge us for a drink. Because of that, we tipped him well and kept coming back. Sadly, he was let go -- his replacement said it was because he was too friendly and non-regulars complained about the service. He definitely could come across as brusque with people he didn't know. We don't go back nearly as much now, and none of the other bartenders are nearly as fun to talk to.

E Greene

Hi, Jason! long time reader, first time, etc...
I am travelling in Australia for a few months so this may test your time-zone bug. As part of preparing I was looking for a platform where I could send pics back to family and friends with more than just a little caption or hashtag and came across this (https://walkingtheworld.substack.com/p/a-pointless-little-japan-story) excellent Substack post by Chris Arnade about... an izakaya and being a regular!

Lisa S.

I ADORED this part of Japan...well, many parts of culinary Japan...when we were there. I can't wait to go back. She gets the things that are fresh and cooks them -- I find that's harder for people to accept in my small part of North America, though was quite common when I lived in Germany. (There's mushroom season, and asparagus season, etc....you eat what's good and in season.) But also, just the idea that you can go into these restaurants (or, well, I don't really have a good word for an izakaya, not a pub, not a bar, but also not a restaurant...in my city we're blessed to just say "izakaya" and people get it), and they only seat 10 people, and they take absolute pride in what they serve. Honestly, we had some of the best French food in our lives in a little 10-seater in Kyoto. (Not an izakaya, but still.)

TL;DR: It doesn't have to be for the masses, it just has to be done with care for people and the ingredients.

Thom Wong
🍕 🆒 👏  comment

One of the best gift's a friend ever gave me was (silently) insisting we always meet at the same coffee shop. Over time, the connections we created and overall vibe of doing so spilled into other aspects of my life, especially when I travel. Usually when you go somewhere new you want to try as many things as possible. But I try and go to the same place repeatedly, glorying in the warmth of them learning my name, picking up on what I like to order, and finally telling me about things I should check out they think I'd like.

I don't know if it's a skill to do so, but, having now moved between cities and countries multiple times in my life, it's my first objective when I find a new home. Go somewhere enough times until they know my name. In this small way it feels like my spending money there matters more than it would in a place where the staff turnover even day by day would make this impossible.

Charlie Sorrel

I used to run a cocktail bar in a small town just outside London. We made and sold food, but only as a condition of our liquor license.

There was a good local pizza restaurant opposite us, on the other side of the avenue, and our customers would order pizza from there, and bring it back to eat in our bar. Often, one of the waiters from the pizza place would just bring the orders over to our place when they were ready.

People sometimes thought it was weird that this fancy cocktail place let you bring in your own pizzas, but it was great. We always had a great local-bar vibe too.

Josh Klina
🎯 🔮 🤯  comment

Love this. I recently stumbled onto a show on Netflix called Midnight Dinner about a guy who runs a Izakaya (though I didn’t know what it was called until this post). It follows the stories of his regulars and has been warm comfort TV as the nights get colder. Y’all might appreciate it as I’ve been doing.

https://youtu.be/OCGDVHjPX0c?si=uwWlyCbDRgFH7cpC

Phil Wells

Adjacent to this, the bowling alley where I used to bowl before my last move had a bartender who was blind. You'd order your drinks, pay her your dollars, she'd ask how much money you'd just handed her, you'd tell her, and then you'd get the right change back and, of course, leave a tip. No one ever cheated her as far as I knew.

This thread is closed for new comments & replies. Thanks to everyone for participating!