The next big Japanese food import is about to hit New York City. Ikinari Steak — a wildly popular quick-service chain best known for its lack of chairs and fast turnover — will be opening its first U.S. location on Thursday in the East Village. Like the locations in Japan, the outpost at 90 East 10th St. is 40 spots for standing dining only and just 10 seats. The idea: to feed people quality steak as quickly as possible, at a moderate cost.
It’s just the beginning of founder Kunio Ichinose’s plans in New York. Takashi Tsuchiyama, who is running stateside operations, says they plan to open 20 locations in Manhattan in the next five years. It may sound ambitious, but Tsuchiyama says through a translator that such plans are reasonable for a company that opened more than 100 restaurants in Japan in three years. “That’s the conservative target,” he says of New York expansion plans.
Here’s how the restaurant works. Patrons approach the counter and order cuts of ribeye, sirloin, or filet by the gram. A butcher then cuts it in front of the diner and serves it one way: rare. The beef, a 40-day wet-aged beef from an Illinois-based company that’s used even in Japan, arrives on a very hot, cast-iron platter. Anybody wanting a more well-done steak can cook it to the desired temperature themselves, though most people eat it rare, Tsuchiyama says.
Diners then bring it to their standing station and can choose from different seasonings and sauces, including salt and pepper, wasabi, and a savory, soy-based “special J-sauce” that sizzles when added to the platter. The meat is accompanied by onions, a side of corn, and a garlic paste that he calls “magic paste.” At lunch, a 14-ounce chuck eye steak comes with a salad, soup, and rice for $20. Tip is already included in the prices. But the menu does not have desserts or appetizers. People eat and they’re out, often in 30 minutes or less.
The popularity of Ikinari Steak can partly be explained by the culture in Japan. Standing restaurants in general are popular in Tokyo, where people work a ton and are also obsessed with high-quality food. Limited free time, combined with a thriving food culture, has led to the proliferation of standing restaurants of all kinds, including those serving soba, sushi, French, and Italian cuisine. A Michelin-starred chef has even opened a standing-only spot, offering upscale fare for a fraction of the price of a full-service restaurant.
Ichinose was the first to scale a steakhouse with the standing-only concept. Many of the first locations opened near big commuter hubs, where working professionals tend to congregate. It’s been a hit with lunch crowds, with people waiting in long lines in neighborhoods with lots of offices. Now, the company has opened locations in food halls and shopping malls, too.
“In Japan, like in America, steak is kind of a special meal,” Tsuchiyama says. “It was a revolution, because they offered the same quality of meat as high-end restaurants for half the price. But what you have to give up is the seating.”
The East Village isn’t exactly flush with traditional offices, so it’s hard to see Ikinari serving the same purpose in people’s lives in New York as it does in Japan. The area surrounding Ikinari is more of a destination for NYU students, nightlife, and casual weekend dining, and though cult-beloved imports like Ippudo Ramen and Tim Ho Wan are nearby, those restaurants offer a more traditional, full-service experience.
It’s also not the first time an ambitious restaurant in New York has eschewed seating. Montreal-style smoked meat shop Mile End initially didn’t offer chairs at its Noho location when it opened in 2012. It was not very well-received, and the restaurant now has some chairs. Oreno Corporation, another Japanese standing restaurant, had plans to open in New York years ago, but a restaurant never materialized.
Still, Tsuchiyama says he’s sure New Yorkers will fall in love with Ikinari just as the Japanese have. He chose this location because it was already primed to be a restaurant and because of all the young people who tend to congregate in the neighborhood, who will be more likely to spread the word, he says. “This is not scientific,” Tsuchiyama says. “You either believe or [don’t] believe. I believe.”
Stay tuned for photos from the space and more info, later this week.