Routes to Tokyo Via Maid Café NY and Bohemian
New Yorkers curious about Japanese dining culture have a new place to experience it in Maid Café NY (150 Centre Street, 775-386-2692), which aims to bring a dose of the Japanese kawaii scene to Chinatown. A bit further uptown, Bohemian (57 Great Jones Street) is a bar and restaurant reminiscent of Tokyo's private dining clubs. Each is its own glimpse of the island nation on the other side of the Pacific.
Schubach Maid Café's colorful counter
In Japan, maid cafés are the coffee shop version of a bubblegum pop song, with girls in frilly costumes attending to mostly male customers by singing songs, enchanting food with "magic spells," and drawing ketchup smiley faces and hearts on omelets. Maids kneel to take orders and address diners in keigo, an ultra-respectful form of Japanese. To the uninitiated, this behavior can seem painfully saccharine and subservient -- yet another example of "wacky Japan."
But maid cafés are emblematic of a larger system, promising release from the buttoned-up formalities that drive Japanese work life -- an explosion of cotton candy cuteness in response to daily drabness and rigid etiquette. Maid cafés primarily serve otaku (nerds), who are increasingly recognized as a powerful demographic, with their heavy consumption of manga, anime, video games, and technology, as well as their desire, after all that solitary gaming, for connection without the risk of rejection.
What diners will find in Chinatown is a significantly watered-down version of this, more a Japanese maid-themed coffee shop than an actual maid café. The menu is limited to rice balls, a few pastries, and Japanese curry -- none of which seem to be made in-house -- as well as bubble teas that clearly come from a powder. The maids are cheerful when addressed, but don't otherwise engage -- they will, however, pose for a Polaroid with customers for $5. It's hard to imagine, once initial buzz dies down, who will frequent Maid Café NY apart from the most dedicated Japanophiles, as neither the food nor the service is much of a draw.