[This entry was written for The Japan Blog Matsuri]
About a week ago, I was walking west along Senkawa-dori on my way home from the new branch of my gym that’d just opened by Nerima Station. I came across an Italian restaurant that, having lived in the neighbourhood for 4 years, I had often passed, but never actually gone into. Deciding to depart from my usual dining out schedule, I went in and gave it a go.
The restaurant was certainly good at what they cooked, which was Italian food (mathematically, it was actually the subset of “Italian food” consisting of the union of “pizza” and “spaghetti”), but I spent the meal reading my book and feeling like something was very wrong, without being able to put my finger on it exactly.
Standing at the cash register, waiting to pay my bill, my answer finally came to me in a flash:
It was the decor.
The place was done up like a stone-walled cafe somewhere in Rome, which certainly fit the style of the food appropriately. The problem was that someone had obviously gone to the “stick random crap on your walls” school of restaurant design, and decorated the walls with items including the following:
- An advertisement for “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show starring Annie Oakley”
- The sign from a cobbler’s shop somewhere in London
- A wagon wheel and wood barrel as might have been found on a homestead on the prairie
- A 1970s-era Heineken advertisement
Once I noticed what the problem was, it was impossible to avoid being bothered by it. Oh, I’ll probably go back — the food was decent — but it did get me to thinking about “foreign restaurants” in general, and whether they’re really “authentic”. In this case, I’m not talking about food whose taste has been altered to suit the local palate. That happens almost everywhere. I still have to remind the Indian shop down the street that when I say spicy, “I don’t mean spicy for a Japanese person, I mean spicy for a westerner.” And I’m sure that we’ve all had “Japanese food” back in our home countries that’s not much more than strips of beef drenched in sweet teriyaki sauce.
What I am talking about is “atmosphere”. Trying to decompile the thought process of the person who decorated that restaurant, I figured out where he was coming from: “I have a Western restaurant, and here is all this authentic Western stuff to put on the walls! It matches!” And from the point of view of a lot of his customers, he’s right. Hell, it took me a while to notice, and I’m familiar with the cuisines, languages, and geography and timelines involved.
This made me wonder how many restaurants there are back in Toronto that are analogous. I wonder if some of the Vietnamese restaurants that I enjoyed on Spadina had random Chinese and Japanese stuff on the walls. Who knows whether that Ethiopian restaurant on Bloor is full of Congolese flags and Sudanese knick-knacks?
Anybody have any interesting similar experiences to share?