It was a family business with a simple menu that was not so different from other restaurants like it in any other neighbourhood throughout the country, or the world for that matter. Yes, the food would be different from one place to the next and the actual dishes and glasses that were used would be based on the realities of running a small family business, rather than the rugged tactile realness or earthiness that wabisabi would attribute to handmade pottery, but the personal touch that that family brings to their operation and to their interactions with the customers is hard to come by with bigger businesses that strives to achieve larger corporate ambitions.
The little mom and pop that I went to so regularly over the years and still resonates with me nearly 11 years after I left that neighbourhood is that essence of the mom and pop business and on a personal level the essence of how wabisabi of smaller business creates for them advantages that can not be matched in larger organizations.
Before I wax rhapsodic on that little restaurant or the last visit I paid there during a holiday in 2010, let me go to the other end of the spectrum for a few moments. A few months ago while I was out with my wife, son and in-laws we went to one restaurant from a chain that purports itself to be a casual dining experience. It is one of a significant chain across western Canada that has an award-winning chef behind its menu and probably a target demographic market of the 25-45 age range. With my in-laws and my 2 year old, it has always felt like an uneasy compromise. Also, as the wage-earning male of the group I tend to get a bit more attention during the interactions with the wait staff, which you can already predict is comprised of younger women who are easy on the eye and tend to teeter on the footwear they work in rather than move fluidly and briskly.
On one occasion I somehow caught a glimpse of, let's call it a cheat sheet, that the waitress had. Her primer featured what the restaurant, the chain I might emphasize, called. I can't recall what the entire list was verbatim but they were steps in the interaction with the customers. Repeat and/or Review were in their for the sake of getting the order right, of course, but they were lost in the shadow of one R that I'd consider misplaced or interloping: Romance. From what I could gather from my angle and the brief time I had to look - this almost suggest that a forbidden glance that is prelude to some other events is at play here - there were guidelines and prompts to be flirtatious enough in the interaction to entice a little bit more out of the customer. Whether it was an effort to up-sell or establish a Rapport (another possible R, but likely taking a backseat to the efforts at Romance) that made the interaction with the customer something more it was not to be. There was none of the sincerity behind it and throughout the other visits to that restaurant there was never sufficient impression left by any of those waitresses who were working those same 5 Rs from Vancouver to Calgary to Winnipeg the as well as they can. In reality they are occasionally earning the noun "bimbo" in reviews posted to Urbanspoon. It was all something the left me looking at my wristwatch throughout and marking time with comments about the slow service as much as anything else I could talk about.
The place I recall from Kyoto was one where the faces were always familiar after the first visit and remained so over the course of time. There was always a heartiness and sincerity to the greetings and interactions that went beyond the excitement of having a token white guy drop in. There was something ineffable yet deep to the interaction that made the return each week or so a pleasure for the company of my harried hosts a pleasure until I spotted the moment in the schedule on Sunday evenings where I could drop in as the day was coming to a close and I took up a table while the ballgame played on the TV and a few of the rickshaw drivers who showed the tourists around ended there week the same way I did. There was the opportunity to linger a bit and catch up with a bit of small talk. It was the part of my routine in Japan that made the neighbourhood more like home. It also made the place a most stop during my first back trip to Japan. I looked forward to it for the company even more than the fried chicken I almost always ordered. The routine was familiar and it was one that made that place feel like one that was part of my Kyoto, part of my home. I never worried about the length of time it took to be served there. I was far more conscious about taking a table for four when I came in alone and if it were hectic, I made a point of gesturing to them that I could wait. (It was the least I could do when I really wanted to pitch in and clear a table or two for them.)
When I returned on a holiday in 2010, 7 1/2 years after I left Japan, my wife and I took a table and watched them at work. It was lunch time in the middle of the autumn colours of November, a time of year just as scenic and tourist-clogged as cherry blossom season, so we were able to seat ourselves unnoticed, or so I thought. I watched everyone at work. The mom and pop each a little older. Pop perching a pair of glasses on his nose and perhaps a little stooped and Mom moving a little slower than I would have liked. Their son was in the kitchen next to his Dad and a sister, I believe of the Mom, was working the floor also. I waiting to make my regular order to see if there would be recognition then, but before I got my menu, there was a stop of recognition.
I beamed at the welcome. After seven years.
While they may not have aspired to concoct a dining concept that would have spawned a national chain and with it an elaborately detailed and described corporate culture sure to attract clients and potential employees alike, they carefully, plate-by-plate, day-by-day, six days a week provided great food that was never pretentious. Their grace, humility and Pop's gregarious "maido!!" - Kyoto slang for thank you - shouted from the kitchen made me to come back after that very first day. It is the commitment to and the elevation of these simple, humble things, the gratitude for the opportunity to share food together, that brought me back time after time and stuck in my head for the years afterwards to make it a must-visit and something that I laud now for its simplicity and purity 11 years later.
There was nothing inculcated in a corporate training room, nothing refined and redefined for "fit" with the brand after hours of observation and training and customer satisfaction surveys. They just wanted to run a restaurant and make good food. They, like countless other moms and pops have done so with a personal touch that is not calculated and calibrated, but is the very paradigm of what personal service can and ought to be.