Benihana Is Chain Restaurant Nirvana
Inside one of the most overcrowded shopping centers in Chicago there sits on the lower level of the complex two restaurants side by side - The Cheesecake Factory (TCF) and Benihana Japanese Steakhouse.
I have been to TCF only once in my life during a field trip to metro Detroit during my youth. I specifically remember enjoying the cheesecake and found the menu to be incredibly expansive, almost to the point of being overwhelming, but TCF doesn’t really enter my line of thinking unless I’m listening to that Drake song where he mentions getting in a fight with his girlfriend over cajun jambalaya pasta and Shepherd's Pie.
I’m speculating on what Drake would order at a TCF, but he seems like the type of guy who would enjoy some Shepherd’s Pie and I can’t blame him for it. That shit is delicious but I’m getting off track here.
Benihana, much like TCF, is another restaurant that does not take up a whole lot of space in my brain. Rappers have an odd infatuation with the joint, and I seem to remember there being a short scene in <i>The Wolf of Wall Street</i> that takes place there, but I had never sat down at one and had a meal before a few weeks ago.
If I’m being honest my expectations going in (especially to a location that sits in the heart of downtown Chicago) were not very high. The clientele inside of the place was almost all overweight tourists, that class of people who stays downtown at a Holiday Inn Express and doesn’t experience any sort of culture during their trip.
They had their brand new Cubs apparel on with shopping bags from the Water Tower and it’s really not difficult to tell a tourist from a person who lives in the city. Lots of families and older couples who inexplicably chose a chain restaurant on their vacation instead of opting for a locally owned spot in a more eclectic neighborhood. But that’s their prerogative, not mine.
I was there on a balmy July evening to celebrate a friends birthday and he had chosen Benihana for two reasons - one being that we had a group of 12 and the other that he thought it would be funny in an ironic sort of way to go to this place. The novelty of a Japanese steakhouse is that you’re usually eating with strangers, but because we had such a large group we had our own table in the back of restaurant. We sat there with our sake bombs anxiously awaiting the chef.
He arrived with a rolling tray, much like a surgeon who has just been scrubbed and prepped to do something invasive. I was two sake bombs deep and feeling loopy, nearly in the drunken sweet spot where everything is awesome. After taking our orders, he began the evening with the patented Benihana shrimp flick. Most of us were too drunk by this point to catch shrimp in our mouths, but the chef didn’t care.
He just kept flipping them towards us, sometimes sending one or two into a hole in his hat and wowing the entire table. The precision and skill that these Benihana chefs operate is something to marvel at. I mean I can’t imagine having to be “on” like that for an entire evening, nevermind just serving one group. Over and over again these guys are expected to do ridiculous culinary trickery and they rarely miss. I was watching around me and every single table was in the same wide-eyed stupor.
These guys are showmen of the highest order, firing up onion towers, flipping sauces, twirling kitchen instruments and slathering deliciious butter on massive pallets of chicken fried rice.
Before the show had started, I captioned an Instagram story with the following “Welcome to Benihana - the Hooters of hibachi.” Our chef for the evening must have been one of my followers because he proved me so, so wrong. I ate my words that evening. To say that I left impressed would be an understatement, and while Benihana does get the unfortunate tag of “chain restaurant” I can assure you that it is far superior to any other chain you’ve been to. The showmanship, the food, the sake bombs - it’s all part of a wonderful experience that you can’t get at a Cheesecake Factory, Twin Peaks, or Outback Steakhouse. These chefs are dialed in night in and night out, and I’m already looking forward to the next time I have the pleasure of dining out at that tourist trap in downtown Chicago. First sake bomb is on me if anyone wants to join.