Where the Clowns Next to You Are the Show

I went to Benihana on Friday night. Don’t ask why. I just did. We have dozens of world-class restaurants in San Francisco, yet I found myself seated at a heated table next to two wriggling kids and across from America’s most obnoxious young Stanford graduate, desperately awaiting the arrival of our swashbuckling shrimp dicer.

To say we were among a diverse crowd would be an understatement. The family next to us was well-spoken and well-educated, albeit guzzling sake at a mind-numbing pace, despite and because of the presence of their rambunctious youngsters. Packs of rowdy college kids abounded. Uncomfortable first dates were observed and judged. We tried desperately not to stare at the saddest man in America, a clearly divorced dad transforming his visitation rights into a tasty meal while awkwardly trying to engage the two boys he barely knows.

Your heroic mustache outshines your mediocre cooking skills!

Apparently, people only go to Benihana on their birthdays, and only people who live in the suburbs or the outer reaches of our fine city and gather around piping hot grill tables to celebrate. We suffered through the debacle of the un-rhythmic birthday tune at least eight times. We also had a celebrity in our midst; not a human, but a blue sequined shirt adorning a party animal of a man sporting the daring balding-with-ponytail look.

The place was packed, as it always is, which never ceases to amaze me given it’s located among the genuine articles in SF’s storied Japantown. It seems the real Japanese restaurants dotting Japantown can’t compete with the faux-Japantown gaucheness of Benihana.

All I could think about throughout dinner (which was staunchly above-average, by the way) was how much money the poor chef makes. The guy has skills. Kids and adults alike eat it up. Yet these are middle-aged multicultural men who undoubtedly wanted much more than the nine bucks an hour they’re likely raking in at Benihana. They attended our country’s culinary academies and dreamt of unleashing the next hot spot upon an unsuspecting Manhattan. What happened that these men ended up flipping once-frozen shrimp tails into their papier-mâché red “chef” hats?

You couldn’t pay these guys enough to deal with the lady at the grill table next to us. My female dining companion and I were both jolted to attention when we heard a voice cry “I know you’re gonna be de-veinin’ that shit!!” She was referring to the slimy shrimps the underpaid chef had just laid upon a river of oil before topping them with a mountain of butter.

Before we could blink, like a wiry bespectacled ninja, the pit boss was on the scene. It’s clear who wields the big power at Benihana—the guys in black shirts with ties who roam the room making sure the unwashed masses are entertained and the enslaved cooking help isn’t flipping any shrimps into their malnourished mouths instead of their hats. He whispered some words of wisdom into the dissatisfied woman’s ear before he vanished into the onion-volcano mist; I can only imagine it was something to the effect of “We will bring you de-veined shrimp, ma’am.” Good call, lady. It’s their poop, you know.

The next time you’re fishing for entertainment on a Friday night, stop thinking and hit your local Benihana. But don’t believe the tagline. The clientele is definitely the show.

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