Most people when they think of “Japanese food”, they think of sushi, seaweed and such, but another side of Japanese cuisine is often ignored, unless you live there (or visit often like me): Family Restaurants.
Family Restaurants, or famiresu (ファミレス), are chain restaurants in Japan that provide delicious comfort food for the whole family, they’re often open 24-hours a day, very cheap, and are pretty easy to find. They’re basically like American diners, except the food is much better, the atmosphere is brighter and the service is much nicer. In fact, some Family Restaurants are American chains such Denny’s.
I grew up on Denny’s as a kid in the US, and thought that was good dining until I came to Japan and ate at the local Jonathan’s in Kawasaki with my wife and her friends. Totally different experience:
This was an awesome meal I had at the Denny’s in Shibuya in 2012. It was much better than the Denny’s I grew up with in the US, the service was nicer, and the restaurant was brighter and friendlier too.
Family restaurants serve all kinds of comfort food, both Western and Japanese, so you can often find Udon along with some kind of steak dish. But the best part, in my opinion, are the “drink bar sets”, which are all-you-can-drinks bars. Soda, coffee, juice and so on! You usually order them on top of your meal for maybe ¥300 more or so. Well worth I say.
I haven’t checked if they have much vegetarian food, but I hope someone might have more insight. I will say that the variety in the menu is often pretty extensive, so you’re likely to find something vegetarian, even if it’s just the fries (which are really good). I vaguely recall seeing other delicious items like baked potato and such too.
Also, like Karaoke and Manga booths, you can stay there all night if you miss a train, or just feel like staying late. Obviously, the polite thing to do is keep ordering food or drinks (try the “drink bar set if you can”… all you can drink!) but otherwise, you can stay and socialize with friends, or just read a book in peace. If you need help from the staff, just ring the button on at the table. It’s not like an American restaurant where the waiter/waitress will keep asking you every 10 minutes “how’s the food?”, the staff in Japan will leave you alone unless you explicitly call them with the button. This is the same in Korean restaurants too, based on my limited experience.
If you’ve been to Japan outside any of the super-touristy areas, chances are you’ve probably seen a Family Restaurant and may not have known what it was. If you’ve lived there for a while, I’d love to hear your experiences. Personally, I love the drink-bar-set. My daughter loves getting cool toys with her meals, and my wife likes chatting with her sister and best friends, so it’s a good experience all around.
Here’s a list of more well-known Family Restaurants which you might run across along with their official websites. I haven’t eaten at all of these, but I did like Jonathan’s and Gusto:
- Big Boy (the mascot will seem very familiar to many Americans…yet another American chain!)
- Cocos (another American chain)
- Bamiyan (one of the few here specializing in Asian food, not Western food)
Some chains will be smaller and only appear in certain areas, such as the Kansai area (Osaka,Kyoto), but not in Tokyo. Also, one time my in-laws and I drove to the town of Nanasawa where my father-in-law grew up, and there we found what seems like a single, local family restaurant. We had a great time, and the udon was truly excellent. My daughter was 3 at the time, and loved Anpanman, so she was thrilled to get a free Anpanman toy with her meal. It was a good well-rounded meal, too, and probably cost no more than ¥600, which is real bargain.