Everything you wanted to know about family restaurants in Japan
Located from the northern island of Hokkaido through the southernmost island of Okinawa, family restaurants, aka ‘famiresu’, offer a variety of unique menu items at a reasonable price, providing an indispensable dining facility for anybody in Japan.
Being stationed in Japan or Okinawa, places like Gusto, Saizeriya, Joyfull or Denny’s are probably pretty familiar to you. Some of you may regularly use these places for a cheap and quick meal.
These restaurants cover many of the popular Japanese dishes, so visiting one and scanning its thick menu will give you a good overview of the local fare.
I often take my wife and daughter, sometimes with my parents, to a family restaurant once or twice a week for an easy and inexpensive dinner.
We’ll get anything from raw fish to pizza, salad, hamburger or any number of other meat dishes. There are also drink bars.
Thanks to family restaurants, open early morning to midnight (some 24/7 – 365), we can sample virtually any dish, anytime, anywhere.
So what qualifies a restaurant to be a “family restaurant” and not, say, a “fast food restaurant”?
According to the research company Fuji Keizai, family restaurants can be defined as a restaurant where children can visit, its price ranges are between 500 and 2,000 yen ($4.50-18) per customer, serving time takes three minutes or longer (less than three minute is categorized as fast food), and there are 80 or more seats.
Since most family restaurants are franchises, price, service and menu items are the same throughout the chain, just like fast food joints McDonalds, KFC and Mister Donut.
According to Touji Kon, an essayist and researcher of the food service industry, the history of the family restaurant goes back to 1969, when a casual French restaurant group, Royal Nakasu (currently Royal Host), introduced a so-called “central kitchen style”. The style allowed for most of the dishes to be cooked in one location, frozen and shipped to all the restaurants so each chain could offer the same dish fast and easily.
Using this new cooking style, Skylark Restaurant Group opened its first shop in Tokyo in 1970, and a newspaper called the casual, family-oriented restaurant “Family Restaurant” for the first time. The new restaurants were rapidly accepted with the name of famiresu, and have increased the number of shops throughout the nation.
As a result of stiff competition among the different chains, prices at these restaurants have continued to drop. This has turned these restaurants from a special place to have a celebration, to more of a casual eatery for virtually anybody.
“Famiresu is an ideal dinning facility for solo diners, just like me,” says Kunihiko Ishii, a Tokyo salaryman who uses family restaurants almost every day for both lunch and dinner. “It has plenty of options, so I can enjoy different things for lunch and dinner depending on what I’m feeling.”
“Living alone in town, I can’t survive without famiresu,” Ishii said.
According to Ishii, daily lunch sets are available for around 500 yen ($4.50), and dinner can be less than 1,000 yen. Plus, unlimited refills at the drink bar for around 150 to 300 yen enables him to stay and read in a cozy restaurant for hours.
I’ll often see groups of high school students chatting over a small meal, or foreigners giving English lessons to Japanese students at family restaurants. The well-arranged seats, casual yet cozy interior and lighting might contribute to the hang-out friendly environment.
I remember that my daughter using the restaurants as a place to study before school exams. She said it was like going to the school library, but people are able to chat and study together.
Because some of the chains have added liquor to their menu, family restaurants have become a cheap and cozy bar for salarymen. I’ll often drop by Saizeriya or Bamiyan, both of which offer a 17-ounce decanter of quality wine for 390 yen ($3.50).
With cheaper adult beverages, customers can enjoy cheap drinks to go along with the wide variety of foods. Plus, the late hours allow for the late-night, post-bar meal.
Whether it’s breakfast in the morning, a drink at night, or a late-night snack, these cozy restaurants offer just about everything you need at a price that’s hard to beat.
Top family restaurants in Japan
Gusto (1381 shops) (www.skylark.co.jp/gusto/)
Saizeriya (1032 shops) (www.saizeriya.co.jp/)
Joyfull (758 shops) (www.joyfull.co.jp/)
COCO’s (569 shops) (www.cocos-jpn.co.jp/)
Denny’s (391 shops) (www.dennys.jp/)
Bamiyan (341 shops) (www.skylark.co.jp/bamiyan/)
Bikkuri Donkey (334 shops) (www.bikkuri-donkey.com/)
Big Boy (324 shops) (www.bigboyjapan.co.jp/)
Royal Host (225 shops) (www.royalhost.jp/)
While Gusto and Saizeriya are popular in Kanto region, Joyfull overwhelms others in the West of Japan. Check out the popular Family Restaurant in your locations.
Aomori Prefecture (Misawa)
1st: Gusto, 2nd: Bikkuri Donkey, 3rd: COCO’s
Tokyo (Yokota, Hardy Barracks)
1. Saizeriya, 2. Gusto, 3. Denny’s
Kanagawa Prefecture (Zama, Yokosuka, Atsugi)
1. Gusto, 2. Saizeriya, 3. Bamiyan
Yamaguchi Prefecture (Iwakuni)
1. Joyfull, 2. Gusto, 3. COCO’s and Big Boy
Nagasaki Prefecture (Sasebo)
1. Joyfull, 2. Gusto, 3. Bikkuri Donkey
Okinawa Prefecture (Foster, Kadena)
1. Gusto, 2. Joyfull, 3. Bikkuri Donkey
- Source: The 2015 research of stats-japan.com
Popular menu items
The followings are some of the most popular menu items at popular Family Restaurants.
1. Gusto: Cheese-filled hamburger steak.....390 yen
2. Saizeriya: Palma-style pasta....................390 yen
Margarita pizza........................390 yen
3. Joyfull: Egg-drop pork cutlet set..............590 yen
4. Coco’s: Seafood doria...............................780 yen
Beef curry....................................880 yen
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