Now reading Breakfast at Denny’s in Japan

Breakfast at Denny’s in Japan

A half-American meal in Tokyo.

There is a Denny’s kitty-corner from my parents’ house in the Shibuya district of Tokyo. In Japan, Denny’s is a popular famiresu (truncated Japanglish for family restaurant) with over four hundred outlets. But for me, Denny’s was never more than a landmark near their house. Almost every Tokyo taxi driver recognizes that bright red-and-yellow sign.

Denny’s was my father’s favorite neighborhood famiresu. I remember my father talking about Denny’s when it opened in Shibuya in the mid-eighties. Back then, it was a fashionable place—the idea of being able to drive and park your car at the diner was like something out of a Hollywood movie. My father liked Denny’s because it brought back a taste of America, where we had lived on and off in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Denny’s was not only a good place to get coffee, he said, the food was decent, too. When I visited, he encouraged me to try it, but I never took his advice. I live in Los Angeles; I didn’t visit Japan to eat American food. 

Three years ago, when my father invited me to go to Denny’s in Shibuya, I didn’t refuse. I wanted to keep him company. My father, at ninety years old, needed his daily walk and a break from the senior lunch meal service. According to my father, the round trip to Denny’s took about five hundred steps on his pedometer. That had become his daily goal. He was an avid walker well into his eighties, registering ten thousand steps a day on his pedometer. He credited the military training he received during the war for his strong legs. He always said he was living a second life. He took nothing for granted—especially time. These past few years, every time I returned to Japan, I noticed he was walking a little slower, taking each step more carefully, so as not to fall and not to lose his breath. A cane could help but he didn’t want to depend on it. So on our walk to Denny’s, he held my arm.

When we entered Denny’s in Shibuya, my father and I were greeted by a kawaii (cute) server. The laminated picture menus arrived right away and I looked at mine, not expecting much. To my surprise, the menu bore no resemblance to the Denny’s menus I’d seen in America. Missing from the menu were the Grand Slams, the Philly Melts, and the Baconalia classics. The food has been totally Japanized; they serve a Japanese breakfast complete with miso soup, grilled salmon, fermented soybeans (natto), rice, and pickles. They also serve American breakfast with all the essentials: eggs, bacon, sausage, and toast. But the presentation is different. Food isn’t piled high on a plate. The menu suggests you share large salads with two to three people. There is no “fit” or gluten-free fare.

I was surprised to not see a hamburger—that American diner star. The closest things were the “hamburgs.” My father explained how hamburg differed from hamburger: “It’s a beef patty that comes with sides like fried potatoes, rice, vegetables, and miso soup.” I studied the hamburg menu further. The coarsely ground Wafu hamburg topped with green onions, ginger, and a soy-sesame sauce sounded interesting and so did the hamburg with sliced avocado and wasabi mayo. These hamburgs are sensibly priced between 650-850 yen (U.S. $6 to $8).

My father ordered the sunny-side up breakfast with a short stack of pancakes. His appetite seemed better than ever, which made me smile. I enjoyed my hamburg with rice and miso soup. I later found out that Denny’s Japan, operated by Seven & I Holdings, gained rights to the Denny’s brand in Japan in the eighties and did a makeover of the menu. Denny’s sign is different, too. Japan uses an older design—a curlier font, which I think is more kawaii.

Watching my father eat his eggs and pancakes brought back memories of eating out with him. There were of course the family diners at Denny’s and Big Boy where the whole family—my parents and the five of us kids—packed in the station wagon. When we pulled into the parking lot, we would spill out of the car like beans and run as fast as we could into the air-conditioned diner to order our favorites: hamburgers, fries, and milk shakes. But I enjoyed eating out with my father most when he invited just me on lunch dates. It happened once a year on my birthday. He liked to dine with his children one at a time.

Having a meal with my father at Denny’s in Shibuya seemed so anticlimactic but it turned out to be a memorable dining experience together—sharing an odd bicultural menu in an American famiresu in the heart of Tokyo. My father passed away this year in April, during the cherry blossom season, a few days after his ninety-third birthday. His final days were mostly sunny-side up. He couldn’t walk anymore, so he would sit by the window of his bedroom with a view of the old garden. He liked to write haiku. He left us a book full.

within a reach

more happiness

on a branch of flowers