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The Japanese pub

Lessons from Midnight Diner

The weird and wonderful world of the izakaya – Japanese pub – is showcased on Netflix’s Midnight Diner to great effect. Everything you need is here. The guy who runs the joint – the master – is friendly but unobtrusive. The menu is unfussy but full of Japanese favourites. The other customers are up for a chat. There’s a counter so when the place fills up, you won’t be sitting on your own.

I’ve been to a number of izakaya like the one in Midnight Diner and the atmosphere of the place is made by the staff on the other side of the counter. Often the main point of going drinking to a place like this is to meet the other punters. This can be helped hugely if the staff are friendly as chatting to the person behind the counter can be a great way to indirectly make contact with the person sitting next to you. In Japan, contact is generally made via food. This goes doubly so at an izakaya-with-a-counter where food talk is the way to go to get the ball rolling.

The twist at Midnight Diner is that the customers are encouraged to go “off menu” and order whatever they want. Diners often turn up in a bit of a state so comfort food is generally what they’re after. As comfort food begins at home, orders are often of the unfussy home-cooking style. Nothing gets the conversation going quicker than how we cooked x at home. Passions can run high when disagreements arise over when to add the mirin into your niku jaga (meat and potato stew).

Regional eating variations abound. For example, in Kyoto, the counter can also be the place where your o-banzai dishes are on display. Ordering can be easy if you want to avoid the twin horrors of the Japanese menu or its often bizarre English translation. You can just point at a dish whereupon a serving will be microwaved for you. Simple.

How about food-sharing with strangers? This might not be something you have considered but here again, the counter comes into its own. You can quite reasonably assert that you’ve ordered much too much and would you like to try some? A shared activity is always a good ice-braker especially if that activity is eating.
Going out eating / drinking in Japan is great if you’re up for some chance encounters. Where else would you be sharing food with a stranger within minutes of meeting? Such meetings can lead to all kinds of unexpected places. Karaoke anyone? Who’s up for that late-night Ramen joint I heard about? Then there’s that hole-in-the-wall bar round the corner…

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