Mr. Sato finds friendship, cancer, and the Olympics at the bottom of this confusingly arranged business.

A few years ago Mr. Sato discovered an unusual curry restaurant in the heart of Tokyo just a few minutes from Shibuya Station. It’s called Flaneur, and it serves the most exquisite steak and curry that Mr. Sato has ever eaten, but you’d be hard pressed to see the sign beyond the large cigarette billboards and counter selling tobacco products in front of it.

In such a restaurant-dense area like Tokyo the competition is fierce and the image of an eatery is the most important factor in drawing customers away from rival establishments. And yet, Flaneur’s design strategy has defied this common-sense business practice for decades.

▼ Two signs are posted outside: “Flaneur (curry)” and “Yanagiya (tobacco)”

Since then, Mr. Sato had become a fan of the restaurant and gladly returned for more. He also gradually warmed up to the staff and has finally learned the story behind this peculiar arrangement. The first question he was dying to know was whether this was a restaurant that grew into a cigarette stand or vice-versa?

It turns out, however, that this place was originally neither. The story began decades ago, according to the owner Yoko Yanagihara.

“Around the time I got married, I had a job wholesaling seafood to local bars. But I was selling candy too. Back then I couldn’t get a tobacco vendor’s license because there was another shop 30 meters away. It was too close so I couldn’t sell it.”

By the time the Bubble Era was in full swing, restrictions on the sale of tobacco were at an all time low and since the neighborhood cigarette shop had closed down, Yanagihara could finally enter the lucrative market.

So technically the cigarette shop came first. However, the seeds for Flaneur had already been planted by a chance encounter with an aspiring French chef years earlier.

Back when Yanagihara was selling seafood she became acquainted with Kiyoaki Toyama, a chef in training who worked at the Daiichi Hotel. So focused on his training, Toyama moved into the area with next to nothing. He didn’t even own a cup.

Saddened by his situation, Yanagihara gave Toyama a cup filled with candy as a gift. Toyama was moved by her gesture and offered cooking lessons once a week in return.

As the cooking lessons continued, Toyama eventually made an offer so that he could quit the hotel and come cook for Yanagihara full-time. In 1990, Flaneur was officially opened for business in the back of Tobacco Yanagiya.

However, after years of standing in one place to cook, Toyama grew weary and retired from the kitchen to take on an advisory role in the business. Now, Yanagihara’s grandson Natsuki Oshima prepares the steak curry after inheriting the secret recipe that makes Flaneur’s food so great.

And what is that secret?

Toyama had been working at the Daiichi Hotel during the 1964 Olympics when he received a special request to make a Pakistani curry. After learning to do that, he then tailored the formula to suit Japanese tastes and the Flaneur brand of curry was born.

Now that the Olympics were rolling through Tokyo once again, and sweeping anti-tobacco measures are coming along with it, would Flaneur/Yanagiya consider another evolution that would involve abandoning the cigarette business? Yanagihara explains:

“A long time ago I used to have a shop on the second floor, but when I got cancer I thought it would be too difficult to continue a business like that and rented the space out instead. In the meantime, cigarettes have been sold and thanks to that I have been able to continue making a living until now. All things considered, I think it was good to do cigarette sales.”

The bitter irony that cancer of all things would keep the family tied to selling tobacco was surely not lost on them, so Mr. Sato didn’t bother bringing it up. As a result, Flaneur and Yanagiya remain precariously supported by two pillars of income and will continue to do so until something pushes them to do otherwise.

So, if you’re in the Shibuya area and want to try some luxurious French-Pakastani-Japanese curry in a truly unique atmosphere, try Flaneur out and help push them away from the dwindling and harmful business of tobacco sales and into the fun and spicy world of curry sales.

Restaurant Information
Flaneur / フラヌール
Tokyo-to, Shibuya-ku, 2-17-5 Dogenzaka
11:30am – 9:00pm
Closed Sundays

Photos: SoraNews24
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