One of Japan’s more outrageous restaurant concepts — where diners literally fish for their dinner inside the restaurant — is set to hit Chelsea this February. Zauo, under construction now at 152 West 24th Street, is shaping up to be quite the unique addition to the New York City dining scene: An actual boat is currently being built inside the restaurant in which diners will be able to reel in fish from a tank stocked with ten different kinds of fish.
It’s an outlandish concept that has humble origins. Zauo started as a single family-owned restaurant that gradually started to add the interactive elements into the mix as a way to stand out. Now, there are 13 locations in Japan, but the same family still owns them all.
Founder Noriki Takahashi and his sons Kazuhisa and Takuya maintain that though the restaurant certainly has a strong hook, it’s not a gimmick. In Japan, they say it’s a family-friendly restaurant, often with three-generation families. They say it is more than a themed chain.
“We totally understand there’s a debate going on, but we’d like people to understand we’re not doing this just as entertainment,” Kazuhisa says. “We do want people to have a good time, but there’s a message we want to send that you’re eating a life. You’re killing a fish and eating it, and in Japan we pray before every meal and say, ‘Thank you for the lives you have given.’ Thats the message behind this restaurant.”
The family decided to bring the concept to NYC even after hearing from hospitality industry locals that it would be a challenge. “Half the people we met said it’s a really interesting concept, and the other half said it’s impossible,” Takuya says. “That made me want to bring it more.”
The test here is having live fish in a tank, which presents a lot of health department challenges. But Zauo is finding a way to make it work.
In Japan, diners start by grabbing poles and purchasing bait before they “target the prey,” reads the website, though diners having a rough time can ask servers for advice. Once a diner has caught a fish, it’s turned over to staff, which takes it to be grilled, tempura-fried, or served as sushi.
Chains from Japan have been opening in New York at a rapid rate since ramen hit Ippudo first captured the dining imagination. Kaiseki restaurant Naoki, steakhouse Ikinari, udon chain TsuruTonTan, and ramen chains E.A.K. Ramen and Ichiran have all hit the city in the last year. Several of them have ambitious plans to expand; already, Ikinari has plans to open at least seven more outposts.
Many of them have been finding a lot of success at least initially, with places like Ichiran drawing hundreds for their grand opening. Stay tuned for more as Zauo plots its debut.