We didn’t find ‘Grill Miyata’ the first time we came looking. After getting ourselves almost lost in Gion area of Kyoto, we gave up our search and went for a different restaurant, near the same area.
I’m getting too ahead of myself. First, a bit of prologue. The cook (who also happens to be my dear wife) and I went to Kyoto for our honeymoon in mid-September this year. For those of you who didn’t get the hint from the name, Kyoto is in Japan. It is located in the central part of Honshu Island, to be slightly more exact. It is a city many said has managed to combine the traditional aspect of Japan and the modern. We decided to go there for this reason.
So, there’s that.
After our visit to Fushimi-Inari Taisha on our first day in Kyoto, the cook went looking for a great dinner place in Kyoto (While in ‘Rome’, right?). After a bit of browsing, she found a place called ‘Grill Miyata’. We noted down the address and went out looking for it in the evening. We found it really hard to look for Miyata-san’s place. We walked back and forth along Shijo Dori, going in and out of its many intricate alleyways, and after spending almost an hour with no luck, we gave up looking. Starving, we decided to go to Pontocho instead to find a restaurant.
Pontocho is a location next to the Kamo river well-known for being a riverside dining area. We planned to go there in one of the following days but since we were not lucky in finding Miyata-san’s place that night, we moved that plan earlier. We found a restaurant that served beef and decided to have dinner there. Surprisingly, the beef they served in the restaurant was melt-in-your-mouth good. It was too bad that we didn’t note down the restaurant’s name as it turned out that the beef they served there was slightly better than Miyata san’s. But more on that later.
Grill Miyata is closed on Mondays. It was a Sunday, and we decided to try our luck on Tuesday evening, 2 days later…
Little did we know that at one point on Sunday night we were actually standing in a spot in an alleyway right outside the building where Grill Miyata is. We found ourselves standing on the same spot again on Tuesday night, just a bit unsure whether the building was the right one. Still, we went in anyways. You see, Grill Miyata was located at basement 1 of a very unassuming building sitting at the corner of an L-shaped alley in Gion Nawate Shijo-agaru. The place didn’t put up signs outside the building advertising their existence. I can only say that tourists who go to this place must be really determined to eat here, what with all the abundant of easier-to-find and relatively better-tasting options available nearby.
We went down to basement 1 of the building and found the place. After staring at the entrance door (a Japanese sliding door, complete with a curtain that is usually found in front of Japanese restaurants) and making sure we got to the right place (there was a sign right outside the door), the cook and I looked at each other and we asked ourselves, “Are we doing this?” You see, there were several reasons why we have second thoughts. A meal for one person can cost up to 7000 yen. That’s around USD100, or about 9-10 times the price of a regular portion, and I must say very good, bowl of ramen in Kyoto station. The place was so… well, let’s just say it was very quiet and seems to be lacking customers. We even wondered whether it was open for business that night. From the outside, it looked so… ordinary, for a restaurant whose meal costs so much. For a place that some claimed has quite a cult following on the internet (just read TripAdvisor), the place sure didn’t emit the kind of aura a place with a cult following should have, at least to us. And have I mentioned that a meal for one person costs around 7000 yen (9-10 servings of perfectly great bowl of ramen in Kyoto station)?
Then again, looks can be deceiving. And we were already there anyways, so we decided to just go all the way. While in ‘Rome’, right?
So we went in, and the atmosphere hit us hard. Straightaway we were greeted with this vibe that I can only describe as like going into one of those old diners you find in the US (I’ve been into one in Orange County, near the park where they shot ‘Forrest Gump’). It was just classic. There were no tables, just a wide u-shaped bar right in the middle of the room. An old lady (who turned out to be Miyata-san’s wife) was serving a pair of customers: a middle-aged couple. There were old photos; old radios; some nostalgic decors, and a big statue of a white cat you find in front of so many Japanese stores, the ones with one of the front paw raised in beckoning position. One door at the back to the left of the room led into the kitchen, and another at the back to the right led into a store room. A beer dispenser sat on the left side of the bar. The interior of the room was mostly brown-colored.
The old lady welcomed us and direct us to the left side of the bar (near the beer dispenser). She couldn’t speak English, so she just smiled and handed us the menu. There were only a few selections in it, so we went ahead and ordered the beef.
While we waited, we listened to the old lady serving and talking to the middle-aged couple (the only other customers that night). They were having discussions as if they were old friends. Our drinks came out not long after we put in our order. A very old man came out of the kitchen, walked slowly towards us and greeted us as we were enjoying our drinks. As you can probably guess, he was Miyata-san. He could speak English, and was quite good at it. He asked us the usual questions like where we came from, how long would we be staying in Kyoto, what places have we visited during our stay so far, and so on. A very friendly old man, he was.
Then the food started coming. We found out that all those 7000 yen didn’t pay for only the beef. We were served with a 5-or-so dinner course meal. I couldn’t remember all of them, but they did serve us some salmon salad at the beginning, then there were the customary french fries, and the drinks were also free-flow. I had two very big glasses of beer that night (and just a bit ashamed to admit that I got a little tipsy). As we were enjoying our meal courses, Miyata-san started regaling us with stories from his youth: how he learned English (all by himself, he claimed), how he opened up the restaurant, his time in the United States, and so on. At one point during our meal, he took down the cat statue from the wall, brought it over to us, and told us that it helped him bring customers in so that he could regain the money he lost during one point in his life. That was nonsense, of course, but cute nonetheless. And the stories kept on coming while we enjoyed our dinner.
The other couple would sometime participate in the talks. They couldn’t speak English, so they would sometime ask a question or two to us through Miyata-san. He translated them to English, we answered, and he translated our answers back to Japanese for them. From the way they talked and how comfortable they were with Miyata-san and his wife, I’d say these people were regulars. I must admit that there were times when I felt just a bit out of place. Then again, that was to be expected. After all, we were tourists and what was worse we don’t speak Japanese. Still, considering all those we were quite at ease as they were all very friendly and polite.
And the beef. Oh the beef was great, alright. Not as good as the one we had two days before, as I’ve mentioned previously, but still it was great. Much better than most beef I’ve tasted my whole life (again, except for the one we had two days before).
At the end of the meal, we realized then that the whole point of going there wasn’t only the beef. It was the whole package. It was the food; the atmosphere and the vibe; and the hosts (and even the two customers) who clearly tried their best to make us feel at home. And in the heart of it all, Miyata-san. We understood then why the place has a cult following. So before we left, we ask Miyata-san to take a picture with us. He walked into the kitchen and asked his son help take a picture of us (“My son’s studying in university right now”, he said as his son was coming out). I handed my camera to him, and we sat down with Miyata-san as his son snapped a photo of us sitting together with his cat statue standing on the bar table. That photo is probably the best thing that can describe our experience in Grill Miyata.
As we were leaving, a young caucasian couple came in. When they entered, they wore a facial expression that was probably the same as ours when we entered the place. Miyata-san promptly stood up, greeted them in English, and direct them to their seats. I wasn’t there to see it myself, but I’m sure they had a pleasant dinner.
(Note: I didn’t take the picture of the beef, coz, um, weeellll… I was so hungry for beef that by the time it came out I didn’t think twice and wolf it down straightaway. Anyways, it was just beef y’know, they all look the same everywhere *excuses excuses*.)
(Another note: Grill Miyata also reminded me of this place in Tokyo with similar set-up, where the wife served the customers and the husband tended the kitchen, and they’re both old. The place had a more traditional vibe. Again, I can’t recall the name of the place. I can only remember that it was near to my wife’s workplace, and that they served the best tempura I’ve ever had.)