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How Japanese food became ubiquitous in London

  • Sushi roll with black chopsticks

The popularity of Japanese restaurants in London was at one time limited to the London Japanese population. The first Japanese restaurant opened in 1967, when Akiko Kuzusaka founded Hiroko. It’s now relatively difficult to find somebody who has not experienced Japanese food in a restaurant, bar or pop-up setting, and pop ups like Mr Musubi and My Neighbours the Dumplings are packed full every evening. Japanese food has broken through the mainstream, become ubiquitous, and London restaurateurs are taking advantage.

The beginnings of the modern Japanese food explosion

If you think of “Japanese food”, you will probably think of two restaurant franchises: Wagamamma and YO! Sushi.

Wagamama opened its first branch in 1992 in Bloomsbury. Although it served up classic Japanese ramen with quintessential Japanese flavours, it found a mass audience. Today, they have restaurants in 17 countries, employing over 3,500 staff.

YO! Sushi opened its doors in 1997, seeing the success of Wagamama and hoping to capitalise on it, serving fresh, healthy sushi. In just 18 years, it has grown to have 76 restaurants in 7 countries – 65 of them in the UK, the last 14 years of which have been under the leadership of CEO Robin Rowland.

Tradition turned mainstream

What is it about this food that grabs the attention of the mainstream British restaurant-going market?

As usual, it is a combination of a number of factors including a low price point, customer desire for healthy yet delicious food, and a unique aesthetic.

The clean, clinical and bright style of Yo! Sushi is a breath of fresh air for those familiar with the more traditional breed of Japanese restaurant, and Wagamama offers a slightly more relaxed, atmospheric environment.

Ordering and receiving food in both restaurants is a novel experience. In Wagamama, restaurant goers sit at long benches and order from a paper menu, on which the waiter circles the ordered items. At Yo! Sushi, the food comes to you on a conveyor belt, and you take what you like. To summon your waiter, you press the buzzer on your table. A creative, playful tone is key to their success.

Japanese is popping up

When a cuisine goes “pop up”, we know that it has reached a certain level of mainstream success.

With Japanese, that began properly in 2014 when London’s first musubi restaurant – Mr Musubi – opened on Broadway Market in Hackney. The idea – owners and chefs Mike Tsang and Tet Ogino – claim, is to bring Japan’s favourite savory snack to London for the first time, and it has been a large success.

Around the same time, Clapton saw the launch of My Neighbours The Dumplings Upstairs at Palm 2. They don’t have a website, but their social feeds suggest they are very much still active.

Fast forward to 2015. On February 5th, Beer & Buns popped up just upstairs from K10 near Liverpool Street. Labeling itself as a Izakaya (Japanese drinking establishment where food is served along with the drinks), expect Japanese craft beers, steamed hitara buns and classic games.

It’s clear now that Japanese cuisine has gone past mainstream and become ubiquitous in the British food scene. With its unique tastes and playful style, it is perfectly suited to the pop up culture of the London restaurant scene, and London restaurateurs are capitalising on its popularity.

Our agents work with a number of UK Japanese restaurants to provide expert advice on a range of issues facing restaurateurs. Get in touch today if you’re looking to buy or sell your UK restaurant property and require specialist advice.

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