Ben's Cafe heading

Drawing: Maya (see "Arty Stuff")
Words: Graham Bathgate

Ben is no longer at the new style café he started back in the mid-1990s in Tokyo. He returned to New York leaving Yoshiko Toyama in charge. The last time I was there in 2008 it was still different, still humming, still a great place to visit. The café that Ben started was a solid monument to the coffee-house conversation and comradely atmosphere the he believed in. Yoshiko kept the café in Ben’s name.

Ben Watson created a New York-style café off the beaten track in Takadanobaba, a suburb of Tokyo and a thriving student area. That was in 1996 and Ben quickly established himself and his ideas as the features of the café. He knew how to welcome gaijin, firing off a friendly rejoinder, making a quick joke – with small talk and a ready welcome he was clearly keen on serving his many customers well. When we asked once for a spot more wine in our glass – Tokyo restaurants and bars measure hopelessly inadequate half-full glasses – he came up with the idea of a bigger glass!

For Ben this café was a far cry from his immediate past. Tall, fine looking and eagle-eyed, Ben had worked in New York selling coffee before travelling to Tibet. That inspired him to export goods to Japan - rugs, leather stuff, ornaments, prayer wheels and other spiritual accoutrements. He did well enough to set up the café in 1995. His enjoyed recounting those days and chatting about anything else that made pleasing conversation.

Ben’s Coffee
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Going to his café was an adventure. At that time it was the only foreign-owned café in Japan. Now there are many more gaijin entrepreneurs. The thing that Ben hotly promoted was the quality of the coffee – he termed it “a coffee-drinking experience”, and enthusiastically explained in some detail how he got the best machine, the richest coffee and the surest way to generate the satisfaction of his customers. Ben’s did not serve “Futsu no kohee” (regular coffee), “hotto” (hot water with Instant), “blendo” (blend coffee), the usual simple watery coffee made by a drip method. That used to be all that was available in Tokyo, easy to order, quick to serve. So some reeducating was necessary to persuade customers that espresso-based coffees were worth the extra time and cash. The ‘90s saw a move towards a more Continental taste in coffee, the richer and tastier the better. Ben made the right decision to go espresso! He explained that his silver Italian coffee-machine’s nine atmospheres of pressure extract richer coffee oils. However, he liked to believe that people also visited for his “designer coffee”. He loved taking the care to put a pattern on the surface of the lattes, a leaf or a simple flower – at that time a novelty.

New York style
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It wasn’t just the full-taste cappuccinos or mochas or espresso shots, it was the New York-style open design of the café. It was possible to stay all day – many people seemed to do just that on a Sunday – sipping, reading, chatting, playing board games or just taking in the atmosphere. It could have been a Paris Left Bank café Tokyo-style with its narrow pavement and street frontage buildings crowding in on top of you. In fact, right above Ben’s were six floors of tiny offices.

Ben certainly created something different to the usual kissaten, the old-style Japanese coffee shop with soft seats and round tables, and a mama-san in a kimono. It was also a far cry from the popular stand-up coffee bars with slick service and plastic-wrapped slices of cake. He created a meeting place, almost a home from home, and both Japanese and foreign clientele loved it. The news spread kuchikomi, by word of mouth.

When he was asked about the competition that had sprung up all around for good coffee and trendy cafés, such as Starbucks, he said confidently he was not worried. Starbucks was more of a fast-food concept, and it was operated in Japan by Sazeby’s, a Japanese company. Ben’s Café was wholly owned and operated by Ben! And it was a real café, very individualistic, no need to keep in line with the uniformity of a franchise operation.

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There was a menu, too! Ben’s food and coffee attracted several hundred customers a day. Not bad for a back-street café more than 7 minutes walk from a station. One of the many points that differentiated Ben’s from fast-food outlets was the real cups and glasses, rather than throw-away utensils. Still, it was a café, not a restaurant, so the menu was limited - fresh soups, salads and bagels. What else would it be since it was a New York café? Ben’s was quite an attraction for people wanting a coffee or a drink after eating at one of Takadanobaba’s many good restaurants. Ben’s regularly stayed open until after midnight.

People came not just for the excellent coffee, soft drinks, beers and wines. They came for the atmosphere and the chance to meet interesting people. The café was open-plan, no partitions or cubicles cutting customers off. It was easy to strike up conversation. Ben created a place to linger, a place for savouring.

Highly recommended at Ben’s now on weekdays are the set lunch menus from ¥1000. The homemade quiche is popular. At weekends there’s English breakfast, Caesar salad and various breads and pancakes...

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