Someone is talking about something.
I don’t listen, just nod and occasionally treat myself to an “uh huh” when I walk through the courtyard of Japantown with my brother-in-law and his wife. Instead, all my mental attention is focused on reminding myself of the access San Francisco’s only Benihana has.
“Sorry, just let me see if we need a QR code or something to make the reservation,” I interrupt before actually looking for QR codes and instead flipping through Yelp to see if there are any pictures of Benihana’s front door there.
I haven’t been to the Hibachi dinner theater chain in over a year and a half – my standard celebratory restaurant for literally anything (one of my kids would lose a tooth) – and I’ve spent way too much of it for a year and a half thinking walking through that door for the first time. There are double doors in my head performing like the lead in a legal drama bursting through the back of a courtroom with new evidence that will change everything.
Got a reservation for our Friday dinner at 7.30pm on Wednesday which if you’ve ever tried to get a reservation in Benihana before was impossible.
Grant Marek / SFGATE
In reality there are double doors (damn it!) But they are already open (nooooooo) by the time we walk through the Japantown mall for dinner on a Friday night.
There is only one person at the hostess booth and a whole bunch of people are waiting to be seated. Little by little the crowd at the entrance clears before we get up.
We make our way through a once busy bar area in front of COVID-19 (which now has a single old man drinking in the corner at 7:30 p.m.) before sitting at our 8-top grill next to five people who are here for “Lauren’s 18th birthday”.
A look into the bar of Japantown Benihana on Friday, July 8th, 2021.
Grant Marek / SFGATE
Sitting here feels like being transported back to February 2020. People are drinking drinks, there are several guests in Hawaiian shirts (nature heals), and there is a table with teenagers in bow ties and sparkly dresses that look like they’re going to be some kind of prom dinner.
I close my eyes for a second to enjoy the familiar mixtape of the Benihana dining room: the hiss of sizzling raw meat hitting the hibachi, the loud cheer that accompanies an onion volcano, the choo-choot on the flat top, the * klirr * – * klirr * – * woosh spin * – * clink * – * clink * by chefs who do world-class fork and knife tricks.
A look inside San Francisco’s only Benihana on Friday, July 8, 2021, three weeks after it first turned on the hibachi grills after the pandemic.
Grant Marek / SFGATE
Our server is in front of me when I open my eyes again, ready to take our orders. Her name is Ly, she’s been here for 37 years, and she’s at her eighth eight-top table of the evening with three more. Sweat gleams on her forehead as she writes down a cascade of food and drink (Lauren’s father wants a glass of white wine right now, but when the meat is done he wants a glass of red too).
Ly shouldn’t be here tonight. Or over and over again. The 70-year-old was lured out of retirement by Benihana after they struggled to find people for the dining room.
I scan the dining room and there are only three cooks ninja-turtle-raphael-ing cutlery, despite six full plates of eight. When I get home I do a little research, starting with the San Francisco Benihana jobs page – there are 23 open positions. (Toronto’s world-famous restaurant location closed its doors in May after a whopping 48 years. This was Canada’s only Benihana.) One of the listings I find for the Japantown operation includes a $ 250 sign-up bonus for a hostess.
A man has never thrown an egg like this before. pic.twitter.com/yuY0JPRAcJ
– Grant Marek (@Grant_Marek) July 20, 2021
After turning an egg like no man has turned an egg before, I ask our teppan chef Javier how long they have been back on the hibachi, and it turns out this is the third week. For Phil, who stands directly behind him and cooks for the table across from us, it’s the first week: Phil works from the Burlingame location because there is a lack of chefs here. It can take up to six months to train a Benihana chef, according to The Daily Meal, which means it will likely (?) Be quite difficult to find replacements in an unprecedented time for migrant workers.
(Benihana declined an interview request but offered the opportunity to “forward your questions for review / consideration,” and then never replied when I asked about labor shortages, undeclared cooks, wage increases, and the impact the pandemic had on their business in general. )
The labor shortage has been well documented since America began reopening with vaccinated weapons in the spring. Whether it’s bakers in San Francisco, airport staff or restaurant workers, the U.S. cut millions of jobs during the pandemic, and the people they had before retired early, left the city looking for jobs that didn’t put them at the forefront Fronts of Labor are still bringing widespread virus or are now criticizing a wage shortage. For example, the state minimum wage is $ 7.25. That number has stayed the same since 2009. In San Francisco, where residents must have 4.9 minimum wage jobs to pay rent, the minimum wage is $ 16.32.
Ah, the onion volcano.
Courtesy Mike Merlone
Our dinner lasts three hours, also because we waited longer than usual for Javier. He needed a break between the tables, says Ly.
Lauren’s father has now had three glasses of wine and is shaking (to Lauren’s horror, I’m pretty sure) a birthday tambourine that he found on the grill. We’re all kind of waiting for a huge group of staff to serenade her with the tambourine, except that no one ever shows up. There is only Ly, who clears the table, puts a sad, candle-decorated ice ball in front of Lauren and sings Happy Birthday with the help of the table behind us.
We pay, give Ly an absolutely gigantic tip and thank you for the great night.
“Until tomorrow?” she says jokingly.
I hope one of my children loses a tooth.
All menus are now accessible via QR codes on the napkins in Japantown Benihana.
Grant Marek / SFGATE
Japantown Benihana is located at Post St. 1737. I made a reservation for Friday at 7.30pm on Wednesday evening, which would have been impossible before. If you would like to fill one of these vacancies, click here.