original benihana

This is my second Mad Men Geography post (I think I’m going to create a tag for that!). The first is here. Above you see the facade of a Benihana Japanese restaurant (behind the “Bay Leaf”). It happens to be located at 47 West 56th Street in Manhattan. Benihanas are ubiquitous these days, but this is the very first Benihana. It was opened here in 1964 by Rocky Aoki, a Japanese wrestler and chef who qualified for, but did not compete in, the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.

The original Benihana restaurant is a locale featured in the Season 4 episode of Mad Men called “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” also the title of a book about Japan popular in the 1960s. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) dines at the restaurant with a date, as a way to learn more about Japanese culture since his advertising firm is trying to woo a Japanese client. The episode appears to take place in late 1964 or early 1965. Everything appears pretty accurate, and Mad Men does have a reputation for historical accuracy.

Benihana had four tables in the beginning. The restaurant was virtually ignored and almost went under until it got a rave review from a top New York food critic–then celebrity guests started pouring in, including the Beatles. This happened in early 1965. Part of Rocky’s business plan was to put on a “show” for customers–essentially cooking their meal right at their table, with a lot of fancy knife tricks and cooking maneuvers.

I remember eating at a Benihana in Oregon in 1989, and this was still the business model. Since then the chain has declined–the last time I ate there was, I think, in 2009, and it was kind of lackluster–but it certainly did a lot to bring Japanese food into the orbit of American popular culture.

This makes me hungry for sushi!