The first time I went to Shirube in Shibuya, I was rather confused. My friend, guiding our group, led us down a main street, and then took us into a corridor in a building, where we passed a row of closed shops, seemingly heading for a dead end. He then opened a heavy, industrial-looking door that I would have assumed was meant for staff only. The door opened, revealing a passage that looked over the train tracks and a park behind the row of buildings. We walked down the passage to a tiny door we had to duck through, where we arrived at the dimly lit location. Staff greeted us, we took off our shoes, and headed in.

I’ll admit, part of the appeal of the place is the “hidden” factor, but if the dining experience itself wasn’t a pleasant one, I wouldn’t be writing this post. There are plenty of “hidden” restaurants (“hidden” is relative and temporary, you know) in this city, but just because something is “hidden” does not necessarily mean it’s worth visiting.

Sweet corn at Shirube in Shibuya

The Shibuya location of Shirube is popular. Recommendations are highly recommended (can be difficult to get in without one on weekends), but if you plan even a couple days in advance, this probably won’t be an issue. Clientele is typically late 20s to early 40s folk looking for a bit of fun but without the smoke and sweat of your “typical” izakaya. Izakaya (ee-zah-kai-yah), for reference, is a word used to refer to a popular style of dining establishment in Japan. They’re not quite restaurants, not quite bars. It’s not the kind of place where one goes to order one’s own entrée. A series of smallish dishes are ordered and shared among your group.

This Shibuya location offers a nice seasonal sushi menu, simply prepared grilled fish, and favorites like karaage (kah-rah-ah-gay, fried chicken). Prices are reasonable, and you can arrange a course in advance (along with an all-you-can-drink option), for around 4,000 yen ($40ish) per person.

Fried chicken at shirube in Shibuya

I visited this summer with two friends. Our plans for the evening included attending a party with a yukata dress code, so we dressed up and headed to Shirube for dinner beforehand, where (luckily enough), we were able to secure day-of reservations at the counter.

Counter at Shirube in Shibuya

The restaurant is one of many owned by Raku Corporation (link in Japanese). An intrepid Japanese blogger wrote a post I’ll call: “Hey, this is a great izakaya! Wait, shit, it’s another Shirube!” The blogger notes that he doesn’t necessarily have anything against the chain; he’s still fine to visit, but he’s caught on to their shtick. The corporation has a few very effective marketing tricks up its sleeve, which this blogger has made a comprehensive list of, all of which we experienced during this visit. I’ll write about our experiences and let you decide what was “real.”

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When we were seated at our reserved counter space, we immediately received a salad with a nice dressing, along with a citrusy-scented towel, to clean our hands. We ordered a few items, and the friendly staff upgraded our sushi plate from 3 types of sushi to 6.

Sushi platter at Shirube in Shibuya

Cheese and honey tofu at Shirube in Shibuya

Additional choices for the evening were a seasonal fried chicken dish and a personal favorite of mine: cheese and honey tofu. The meal ended with a light bowl of a yuzu-ish soup, provided for free by the restaurant.

Our small group shared nihonshu, served in appropriately cheesy fake bamboo stalks (complete with matching fake bamboo cups). Each of us left pleasantly inebriated and with full stomachs for about 2900 yen each (around $30).

The restaurant isn’t pretentious; it’s got its gimmicks, for sure. If you arrange for the course, for example, at one point you’ll get a grilled fish with lemon. The deal, though, is that the staff bring the dish to your table and ask a member of your group to squeeze the lemon over the fish, at which point the staff will immediately blast it with a torch to cook it there at your table (usually with a little bit of overly enthusiastic praise at your group member’s lemon-spritzing skills).

It’s not grimy or sketchy; staff are typically pleasant. The menu is written in English and Japanese (imperfect English, to be fair). As far as I know, staff are Japanese-speakers only. If you’ve got no Japanese skills, stick to the regular menu and the old point-and-smile technique and you’ll be fine. If you do have Japanese skills (JLPT N3ish), congrats, you can consider options on the “handwritten” special menu.

It’s a great spot to start off a fun Saturday night, or even a good place for a date, I feel. The corporation runs a lot of similar restaurants (with differences in the types of food they offer), but if you just accept that the treatment you’re getting (which is usually friendly and fun) is pure marketing, it’s a nice spot to just relax and enjoy. It’s a solid standby that I like visiting. And I admit it:

The “hidden” factor is still a little fun.

(English info here.)