SRO Restaurants Because There Are No Chairs

TOKYO - Ore no Italian in Tokyo's ritzy Ginza neighborhood has all the trappings of a Michelin-starred restaurant: lavish décor, acclaimed chefs, and mouth-watering dishes.

There's just one difference - diners feast on foie gras and lobster, standing up.

You won't find couples seated comfortably around candle-lit tables. Instead, they lean against counters overlooking the kitchen, as chefs whip up one gourmet dish after another.

"It was really awkward to stand and eat at first," said Setsuko Yokoyama, who huddled around a small table with her son and husband. "But the food is so good, you keep coming back."

Owner and CEO of Ore no Corporation Takashi Sakamoto, who owns a chain of standing restaurants, describes his stores as "Michelin for the masses" - high-end meals served up at wallet-friendly prices, in exchange for comfort. A tournedos rossini may set customers back $100 at a Michelin star restaurant, he says, but Ore no Italian offers the same quality meal for a third of the cost.

"We have made meals once inaccessible to the average person, accessible again," he said. "I like to believe it's revolutionary for our customers."

Standing restaurants have become a success story in Japan at a time of declining sales in the overall restaurant industry. While average customer spending has dwindled, Sakamoto has managed to open 16 new standing restaurants - all named "Ore no" or the Japanese word for "my" -in a span of just two years. An average meal at his French and Italian establishments cost roughly $40, a bargain in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

The formula is simple: less space, less overhead, higher turnover and higher profits. By eliminating chairs, restaurants can pack in more customers. Turnover is four to five times that of traditional sitting restaurants.

The one area Sakamoto refuses to compromise is quality. He has aggressively recruited star chefs away from well-known, Michelin-starred restaurants. Posters of those chefs are featured, largely at the entrance, of every one of his establishments.

"The biggest challenge is limited space," said chef Yoshihiro Yamaura, who worked in a 570 square foot restaurant. "At our first store we had just three burners. We had to find a way to serve customers quickly, with the resources that we had."

The popularity of the Ore no franchise has spawned a slew of other standing restaurants. At the Tsukiji Hachimake Tasuke sushi restaurant premium blue fin tuna is served up for a fraction of the cost at other restaurants. The Provencale restaurant in Shinjuku offers foie gras steak for $15, roughly half the price of traditional restaurants. Owner Masayuki Sato also provides slippers for women who want to kick off their heels to stand more comfortably around whisky barrels that double as tables.

Sakamoto has expanded his palette beyond French and Italian. Earlier this year, he opened Oreno Kappo, a high-end Japanese restaurant featuring dishes by three-star chef Hiroshi Shimada - served standing, of course.

He now has his eyes set on Manhattan.

Sakamoto plans to open Oreno Kappo later this year, to give budget-conscious New Yorkers a taste of premium wagyu beef, and yakitori or grilled chicken.

"It's not enough to just serve good food anymore," Sakmoto said. "It needs to be delicious and affordable. That's when the lines really start forming."