Just like I say everyone should go to Las Vegas just once in their life, I think everyone should try a Benihana restaurant just once, as well.
Rocky Aoki (right) opened his first Benihana of Tokyo in New York City in 1964 after migrating from Japan. He had previously worked in his parent's restaurant in Tokyo, also named Benihana (which means "red flower" in Japanese) before moving to New York. His father taught him the theatrics that are now famously part of the dining experience at Benihana.
Aoki's first Benihana of Tokyo was a small four table restaurant that served grilled steaks and seafood. Aoki struggled for the first few months before receiving a rave review from a noted New York restaurant critic. Suddenly, he had to begin turning people away at his little restaurant.
Aoki prepared his food table-side in a manner called "teppan-yaki". (Teppan means "steel grill" and yaki means "broiled.) Because Aoki's restaurant was situated near Broadway theaters, the theatrics of the chefs was very important to the success of the place. Food was flipped in the air, knives whirled, forks flew - it was quite a sight to see for people who had never experienced Japanese cuisine before.
Within a year after opening, Aoki had made enough money to pay off the restaurant. He then opened a second and larger location just three blocks from the original Benihana of Tokyo. In 1969, he opened a Benihana of Tokyo in Chicago and the expansion was on. Today, there are 70 locations in 25 states and the District of Columbia in the U.S., and 19 restaurants in 15 countries around the world.
After setting up our suites for the Consumer Electronics Show, we decided to go downstairs for dinner at the Benihana Village restaurant in the Las Vegas Hilton. Getting eight people around one of the table side grilles proved tricky, but we managed.
The Benihana Village at the Las Vegas Hilton is like walking into a little Japanese garden setting. There's a little gold fish pond with a small stream with a bridge going over the water. There's fake plants and trees throughout the garden area. But it is sort of neat to see.
We were taken upstairs to a small room toward the back of the restaurant. A Japanese waitress - probably in her mid-50's - greeted us, gave us our menus and took our drink orders. I ordered an Asahi beer, but they were out of Asahi. So I ordered a Sapporo instead. The beer tasted great after a hard day of setting up.
She came back with drinks and took our food order. I went with a strip steak and scallops. One of my Canadian colleagues seated next to me went with "Rocky's Choice" - which is a steak and chicken combination. And we also ordered some spicy tuna rolls to share before the meal.
They first bring out a small bowl of lettuce and shredded carrots in sort of a ranch type dressing. It's a nice little starter. Then the spicy tuna rolls came, they were OK.
Then the entertainment began...
A tall oriental chef wheeled out a cart of food, utensils, bowls and plates. He introduced himself as "Kong" ("You know, as in 'King' Kong," he joked) and started in with making some grilled shrimp for everyone at the table. He then threw some vegetables and rice on the grill and then made the famous Benihana Volcano (click on the link to YouTube to see the onion volcano in action).
Knives flew, bowls of rice flipped of spatulas, grilled shrimp was tossed on to plates. It's quite the show at Benihana (check out this cheesy Benihana commercial from Russia to get a small idea of what the chefs do when they prepare the food table-side).
Kong breaded my scallops and grilled them along with the steak, chicken and other seafood. I ordered my steak medium rare and it came out medium. (I guess I'm going to have to start ordering my steak rare in Las Vegas - every place I've ever had a steak out there, they tend to overcook it.) But that's OK, Benihana's food would never get confused with a top-notch steak or seafood place.
My colleague next to me who got the "Rocky's Special" had a LOT of food on his plate. The grilled chicken breast was bigger than the steak. Coupled with the shrimp, rice and veggies, he had a ton of food on his plate. "This is definitely too much food," he declared as he offered pieces of steak and chicken to the rest of the group.
As I said, Benihana's food is good, not great. The chef's theatrics are a little corny at times, spell-binding at others. It's good to go to Benihana with a group of four or more - single couples are usually stuck at a table with complete strangers and it can make for awkward conversations. But if you're into that, more power to you.
I've now eaten at a Benihana three or four times and it's been pretty much the same experience each time. But, like I say, everyone should try Benihana at least once.