If you have spent any time dining at P.F. Chang’s or another restaurant that serves Japanese cuisine, you know it’s a unique and exciting experience. However for the first timer it can also be an intimidating occasion. But if you follow these guides it won’t be a problem.
Going into the Restaurant
The first thing you’ll notice in most Japanese restaurants is there are replicas of the dishes near the window, complete with price. If you’re having trouble communicating, just point to the food item you want to order here. When you do enter the restaurant, the waitress or waiter will say “irasshaimase”, which is Japanese for “welcome”. You will then be asked how many people are with you and you’ll be taken to your table.
Seating and Smoking
Most Japanese style restaurants in the US have western style chairs and tables, but many also offer the typical Japanese low table where you sit on pillows (known as zashiki). If the restaurant has both, you’ll be asked to choose which one you prefer. If you opt for the zashiki, remove your shoes when you enter the restaurant or prior to entering the seating section.
Smoking is permitted in most Japanese restaurants, and there’s usually a kitsuen (smoking) and kinen (non-smoking) area. However, some restaurants are either fully non-smoking or smoking. You will be asked by the waiter or waitress which one you prefer before escorting you to your seat.
Ordering and Eating Guide
Once you’re seated, you and your companions will be given free tea or water. You will also get an oshibori (wet towel) which you will use for cleaning your hands before the meal. If you weren’t given the chopsticks they’ll be in the box on the table. Most chopsticks these days are wooden and disposable.
Many Japanese restaurants provide illustrated menus, but there are still some which are text based. In some cases there’s no menu and the offerings are plastered on the wall. If you’re not sure, ask the waiter or better yet, ask for omakase (chef’s choice) or osusume (recommendations) and odds are you’ll get to taste something pretty good.
If you’re ready to order food, notify the restaurant by saying “sumimasen” (excuse me) or press the call button on the table if there is one. When the waiter arrives, tell him what your order is. The waiter will repeat what you ordered so there’s no misunderstanding, and now you just have to wait. In some restaurants, it is common practice for everyone on the same party to order meals together. However, this isn’t followed in other restaurants where each guest is expected to order by himself/herself.
Paying for the Dish
The bill is usually presented upside down after you have eaten or given along with your order. In the majority of Japanese restaurants you’ll need to take the bill to the cashier close to the exit and pay there. Paying by cash is preferred, although many now accept credit cards as well. In more affordable Japanese restaurants, other payment schemes may be used. For instance in most gyundon and ramen restaurants, you buy meal tickets from a vending machine by the entrance and give it to the staff who will take your order.
Tipping isn’t common in Japan, and if you leave a tip the waiter or waitress might feel insulted because the service you ordered is compensated for by the price. Rather than tip, just say “gochisosama deshita” (“thank you for the meal”) before you leave. You should also say “itadakimasu” (“I gratefully receive”) before you eat.
Table Manner Tips
Here are some table manners to keep in mind.
In izakaya restaurants, several food dishes are served on the table rather than giving each individual a separate dish. If you’re eating from a shared dish, use the end of your chopsticks or the serving chopsticks to move some of the food near you.
Proper use of chopsticks in Japanese restaurants cannot be emphasized enough, so take the time to learn how to use it. Set the chopsticks down when you’re not using them, and never stick the chopsticks in your food. In addition, never blow your nose when in the restaurant. It’s also recommended that you eat every bit of rice on your plate, so don’t take more than you can eat. When it comes to drinks, the custom is to serve one another rather than your own.
Once you’re done eating, place all the dishes you used back to the same place where they were when served. This also includes replacing the dish lids and placing the chopsticks in the paper clip or chopstick holder.
As you can see, there’s really nothing to be worried about if you’re eating at Benihana and other Japanese restaurants. As long as you keep these things in mind, you’ll be fine.