Tokyo’s classiest café brings back the butler
“Yes, my princess!”
These are the first words caressing my ears (more like assaulting, really -- these guys are super-genki) as I enter Butlers Café in Shibuya, a retreat for young females in search of a relaxing afternoon, an English lesson and most importantly, the chance to interact with friendly men. Friendly foreign men.
The surroundings call to mind a Victorian grandmother’s sitting room, with classical music, ample accents of lace and more hearts and roses adorning the furniture than can possibly be counted.
Butlers Café is one of a growing band of similarly themed establishments in Tokyo, but it is the only one where English is the official language.
After interviewing 200 women on the streets of Shibuya nearly six years ago, owner Yuki Hirohata found that nearly all of them listed English conversation practice as a leading goal because they wanted to “communicate with foreigners.”
Western men in particular have long enjoyed popularity among Japanese women, and Hirohata’s survey revealed that they especially liked how the foreign men made them “feel like princesses.”
She also hints at how most Japanese females are deprived of chivalrous gestures, as the culture here does not encourage such behavior from men. Hence, the Butlers Café concept was born.
In her former life, Hirohata was an ordinary, slightly disenfranchised office worker seeking a cozy place to go with friends, without having to pay extraordinary fees at a spa or host club or spending time in a male-dominated drinking den.
Now, after training under an Italian chef, she runs the kitchen while her business partner Kazu serves as head butler.
Visiting princesses to the “castle” are presented with tiaras for the duration of the meal and are not allowed to handle bags or even go to the bathroom unescorted. And no -- it’s not that kind of joint, if you’re wondering.
After digesting a page-long list of café rules, guests are given a bell to ring should they desire anything. On my visit, this was particularly fun, though the staff was so attentive and the café so tiny that I didn’t get to use the bell nearly as much as I’d have liked.
I also filled out an information card to get better acquainted with our personal butler, which included questions like: “How do you feel today?” and included suggested frivolous answers such as “I want to drink!”
The butlers themselves, who come from more than 10 different countries, are trained in the arts of conversation and service. Veer too close to their personal histories, however, and the conversation will take a sharp turn back to general topics.
Hirohata and the butlers uphold the story that they attended “Butler University” and then came to Japan because “the most beautiful princesses live here.”
Living the dream
Like so many other cosplay cafés in Tokyo, maintaining a sense of fantasy is paramount. Themed restaurants, such as the ubiquitous maid cafés in Akihabara and the Alice in Wonderland café in Shinjuku, aim to provide a much-needed escape from the burdens of the daily grind and social pressures that dictate behavioral norms in Japanese society.
The café also taps into the fascination many young women have with Disney. “Some customers tell me how they save money for weeks by not going to restaurants, then pick out their best outfits and come to our café,” says Hirohata.
“Here they can enjoy a few hours with their own Prince Charming.”
We spoke with ex-butler Brendan (first names only, stalkers) and, even several years after working in the café, he remains tight-lipped about the reality of the mysterious Butler University.
“Working in the café is a way to participate in a unique part of Japanese culture,” he says. Current butler Richard, staying in character, indicates that the best part of the job is “seeing the princess smile” and he always regrets “when it’s time for the princesses to leave the castle.”
Butlers Café is open Tuesday to Sunday and reservations are recommended. It also requires a two-item-minimum order. The menu consists of pasta, pizza and a long list of desserts priced around ¥1,000.
Butlers Café specializes in tea (but, of course), with a selection of herbal, milk, British and iced varieties, all of which come with a detailed description and pretty presentation by the butler. Smoking is allowed during bar time (from 6 p.m.) and the cocktail list is also fairly extensive, if decidedly feminine.
One of the featured menu items is a customized cocktail made to reflect your character, apparently, and prepared tableside by your personal butler-cum-bartender.
Is it a bit cheesy? Yes. The truth is, however, that the food is good and the novelty of the place makes it a fun destination for a ladies’ outing. Because, deep down, I think all girls like a little make-believe.
Getting there: Take the Hachiko Exit from Shibuya Station and walk northeast for about 10 minutes. Butlers Café is located on the fifth floor of the building across the street from Tokyu Hands.
Butlers Café, Udagawa KK Bldg 5/F, 11-6 Udagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0042, +81 (0) 3 3780 6883, www.butlerscafe.com
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