When I arrived at Benihana in Swiss Cottage, the coat-check girl informed me that I'd have to hang on to my belongings because the cloakroom was full. Oh God, I thought. It's going to be a total scrum in the dining room. In fact, it turned out to be half-empty. The reason the cloakroom was full was because the customers had had to strip down to their underwear in order to cope with the temperature. The dining room is arranged around a dozen or so hibachi grills--huge great slabs of molten steel--and each one acts like a furnace heater. It was like eating in a sauna. Benihana is the only restaurant I've ever been to in which the customers are cooked alongside the food.
For those who've never been to a Benihana--and it boasts of being the largest Asian-themed restaurant chain in the world--the food is cooked teppanyaki-style which means an individual chef is assigned to your table and cooks it in front of you. Looking around, it soon became clear that Benihana is best suited to groups of six or more since that's the minimum number that have to be seated at each table. Several birthdays were being celebrated, with large numbers of friends clustered around various grills, but my companion and I were relegated to the waifs and strays table, with a gay couple to our left and a French couple to our right. After we'd all been introduced, we had to sit there smiling inanely at each other until we felt able to resume our conversations without seeming rude.
Our chef identified himself as "Mario", though that can't have been his real name since he was an Algerian Muslim. He was an Arab trying to pass as Italian, which is precisely the kind of person you expect to be eating at Benihana, not cooking. My companion and I had cherry-picked from the a la carte menu, choosing a combination of prawns, lobster and steak rather than one of the traditional hibachi dinners, and the first thing Mario did was show us the raw ingredients. After we'd given them the thumbs up, the "dinner show" began. "Remember," it says on the website, "at Benihana your food is not only cooked it's choreographed."
Mario's dexterity with the salt and pepper pots was a sight to behold--he tossed them in the air like Tom Cruise in Cocktail--but I could have done without the jokes. "Japanese oil," he said, pouring a viscous yellow liquid on to the grill. "Buy it in Chinatown. Cheaper." My friend and I were deep in conversation--he's just separated from his wife--and every time Mario unleashed a one-liner we had to pause and laugh politely before carrying on where we'd left off.
There are disadvantages to having your meal cooked right under your nose--principally the heat--but at least you can monitor exactly what goes into it. In the age of Sudan 1, that's a big plus. Apart from the various sauces--teriyaki, miso, ginger--the Benihana chefs don't add anything to the raw ingredients, so our meal was extremely simple and straightforward. The crustaceans were a little disappointing--the prawns were tasteless and the lobster was gamey--but the fillet mignon was outstanding. The food is billed as "Japanese", but Benihana is a very American version of a Japanese restaurant. The chain was founded in New York in 1964 and while there are only four branches in the whole of Europe there are now 16 in California alone.
Our fellow customers were exactly who you'd expect to see in a Finchley Road restaurant on a Friday night. The boys reminded me of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, circa 1984, while the girls looked like rejects from Make Me A Supermodel, the new Channel Five reality series. My companion and I tried to look discreetly away as a parade of suntanned beauties flashed their cleavages at their male counterparts, not least because we were 20 years older than them.
All in all, our trip to Benihana was a reasonably diverting exercise in social tourism. My only real complaint is that our meal cost £93.83, which is pretty steep considering we could have cooked it ourselves. I don't anticipate making a second visit until my daughter drags me here to celebrate her 16th birthday in 2019.