I’ve spent considerable amounts of time in extravagant locations. I’ve vacationed at five-star Las Vegas resorts, sunned in Los Angeles, and gambled among the glittering decor in Macau. But nothing I’ve experienced could have prepared me for the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo, a place so bright that Liberace would likely throw on some shades.
But waiting rooms covered in crystals and glistening silver uniforms are just par for the course in Tokyo. And right now, Robot Restaurant is one of the top attractions in Japan, complete with a three-month waiting list. I was able to score a last-minute reservation through my Contiki tour while throngs of visitors thrashed around in Kabukichō, the red light district alley behind the venue, begging for a ticket. Luckily, my group of ten pushed through the desperate crowds of locals and visitors, and descended a glittering winding staircase into a basement of kitsch and confetti for one of the most memorable nights of my life.
Last year Robot Restaurant made $7.5 million and delighted 125,000 of the visitors who flock to Tokyo for its maiden cafes and uniquely themed restaurants. Sure, there are a plethora of Japanese eateries that offer adorable mewing kittens or kitschy singing toilet bowls to entertain patrons while they eat, but the unique mix of robots, music and brightly dressed dancers offers something completely new. It’s true, Robot Restaurant blows them all away from the minute the front door opens and guests are led down a mirrored staircase covered in neon flower prints, gilded animal skulls, and black light reptiles.
The performance is hosted in the basement of the building, with the main level functioning as a lounge, dripping in crystals from the walls and ceiling, with large glass block tables and royal gold threaded swivel chairs. While you wait for a drink at the bar, ordering from the standard menu (go for a shochu highball if you want to try something new), you’ll be soothed into the evening by a collection of familiar standards played by your robot band; my personal favorites were “Moon River” and Cyndi Lauper’s top hit “Time After Time.”
Finally, we were escorted even further down into a labyrinth to take our seats, where other visitors, who had purchased the dinner package were just starting to open up their bento boxes. Dinner is served here, but if you can help it, it’s a good idea to eat before or after the show and save your precious money for drinks and snacks, like Robot chips — on sale during each performance. The restaurant has to serve food to maintain a liquor license, but dinner is not the reason to head to this show in the same way that Medieval Times will never win top billing on a Zagat survey.
The magic starts with a drum circle of scantily-clad ladies and men on rotating stages playing big neon drums. Through the giant wigs, face paint, and glow-in-the-dark bikinis (I hope you like neon bikinis, because you’ll be seeing them a lot) the magic slowly builds. The music gets louder, and lasers begin zipping colors across the crowd. With the advent of a red dragon manned by half a dozen performers and a woman dressed in head-to-toe silver playing the electric guitar, the spectacular opening act comes to a close and sets the tone for the show by being loud, vibrant, a little naughty, and completely sans storyline…because there isn’t one. And that’s okay.
The performers are a little frantic, a little crazed, but ultimately make you fall in love with whatever insane dance they are doing. While all 20 female and 10 male performers are seemingly experts in dancing and instrumental prowess, and some even sing in English, a Robot restaurant representative says the most important traits of the show actually do shine through. Due to those big smiles, the cheekiness of the performance, or maybe simply the elongated shape of the intimate venue, you are all in this together.