The sign says "Denny’s" in a red font that’s jauntier than you may be accustomed to. The first question you’ll likely be asked by a young woman in a uniform the color of mint chocolate chip ice cream will be “Smoking or not?” And then you’ll get a whiff of an all but extinct smell, eau du diner—a griddled aroma with a top note of stale smoke. The cigarette vending machine sits in the lobby near the bathrooms, just like the Denny’s across the street from your high school where no one batted an eye if teens pooled change to buy cigarettes and smoked them at booths for hours on end. No, you have not found a portal to the past. You’re just in Japan.
Denny’s is practically an institution in Japan, where it’s been since 1973. At the Shinjuku branch (just one of nearly 600 locations nationwide) where I rushed to, jet-legged on a Sunday morning, desperate to beat the 11 a.m. cut-off for breakfast, the decor appeared to have not been updated much in decades—though I wouldn’t put it past the Japanese to nail the retro rust and harvest gold tones, vinyl galore, and vaguely space-age light fixtures.
The chain long ago gave up the pretense of mimicking the original menu. Denny’s Japan is known for two things, as evidenced by the lighters for sale at the cash register: pancakes and hamburg steak with demi-glace. The is latter a staple of Yoshoku cuisine, a East-West mash-up born in the Meiji era that still enjoys popularity today. Sure, they have a club sandwich, but the laminated picture menu features steaks and fried oysters on sizzling platters, seasonal chestnut carbonara, and doria—a cheesy rice gratin, served with porcini and ham, curry, or Mexican-style (avocado, tomato, and sausage).
There is a call button at every table. Japanese service is famously unobtrusive, and accordingly it’s not rude at all to raise your hand or yelp “sumimasen” (“excuse me”) to get noticed.
There are no Grand Slams and definitely No Moons Over My Hammy at a Japanese Denny's. The portions are demure, though the prices are gentle to match. There are set breakfasts, where you choose a main from a row: A. scrambled eggs, one strip of bacon, a sausage link, and salad, B. all of the above with sunny-side up eggs, or C. same, with hard-cooked eggs. That all comes with a side of rice and miso soup, toast, pancakes, a roll, or what looks like a personal loaf of bread that translates as danish. and finally coffee, tea, Coke, or melon soda— all for only 549 yen (roughly $4.75). Natto, the mucilaginous dish of fermented soybeans can be yours for an extra 99 yen.
I chose sunny-side up (I got scrambled, which I didn’t point out because I feared an embarrassment of bows and apologies), pancakes, and drip coffee, which appeared to be bottomless—the feature that was most American. Waitresses top up your mug repeatedly, not discouraging customers’ lingering despite the custom where you are brought your bill with your food. Elsewhere in Tokyo, paying for one cup of coffee entitled you to one cup of coffee.
All breakfasts are served with a side salad lightly dressed in Italian vinaigrette and garnished with a few curls of Parmesan-esque cheese. I have now eaten breakfast in 18 countries, and I’m fairly certain I’ve never been served a morning salad.
The pancakes, more silver dollar in diameter, and much thicker than their American counterparts, were almost as perfect as the plastic models displayed in Japanese shop windows, and they were as flavorless too. The doughy rounds absorbed as much syrup as you poured over them and still managed to be dense and hard to swallow. Boxed pancake mix is available for purchase at the makeshift gift shop at Denny’s entrance, so I’m assuming there’s demand for the near-choking experience in the safety of customers’ homes. (In Harajuku, there were multiple cafes selling a 20-minutes-to-prepare pancake-souffle hybrid that was fluffy and delightful, so I know that the locals—or at least teens dolled-up in platforms and petticoats—can appreciate sweetness and light.)
The restaurant, spacious by Tokyo standards, remained steadily one-third full, though no one sat at the row of counter seats and no more than one table was occupied in the smoking section, enclosed in glass like a terrarium but without any door. This quirk of the city’s character, so orderly and civic-minded (no eating and drinking on the streets, no talking on phones—-or talking period—-on the subway, face masks if you’re feeling germy) but no thought given to second-hand smoke was flippant—and endearing. I, too am rule-oriented and am kept in check for fear of offending my fellow man but loved the novelty of smoking indoors, though I did not participate.
Denny’s is hardly a destination restaurant—in the US or Japan—but if you’re an American in Tokyo, it manages to do what Starbucks or McDonald’s (or Dominique Ansel or Luke’s Lobster) haven’t: envelop you in a purely Japanese experience despite the initial whiff of familiarity.