Japan’s suited “salaryman,” an emblem of the country’s post-World War II economic boom, spends his long days cooped up in the office while the wee hours are reserved for restorative visits to the yokocho. Those bar- and restaurant-lined back alleys—Golden Gai, tucked behind Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station in particular—are among the influences for Chicago’s visually compelling Momotaro.
A vintage pink phone holds court in Momotaro’s underground bar.
TWO BARS, TWO LOOKS
To drink the three-level Momotaro to life, the Boka Restaurant Group—of Boka, Girl & the Goat and the J. Parker fame—enlisted the celebrated design firm AvroKO.
Just as hamachi rolls and sweet tomato tartare are draws at Momotaro, so are the cocktails stirred and shaken at Momotaro’s two very distinct bars. After work, the busy one on the ground floor swells with revelers drinking concoctions like the Protective Charm (Death’s Door gin, Averell Damson gin liqueur, egg white, yuzu-lemon, soda), “written on a menu which was designed to resemble the 1960s brokerage boards used on trading floors across Japan,” says AvroKO principal Kristina O’Neal. “There are also several pendant light fixtures that were inspired by a soroban, a Japanese counting device similar to an abacus.”
The izakaya-style bar downstairs below ground level is a moody mix of tar-stained wood and neon, conjuring the clandestine back alley yokocho with posters in the lounge depicting “black-market activities.” Look for the aptly hued vintage pink phone: You use it not to make a call, but to listen to audio clips of pop music, commercials and excerpts from seedy, nudity-filled pink films.
Momotaro’s brokerage-board menu features constantly changing items.
THE MAGIC OF FUNCTIONALITY
“One of our larger challenges is figuring out how to make a bar a place where people feel like they can disappear,” says AvroKO principal William Harris. Nuanced details at Momotaro lead to exactly that kind of escape. The trick was to not sacrifice bar functionality for aesthetics. “We often see restaurants try to design and accommodate for a large bar and rarely is it successful,” says AvroKO principal Adam Farmerie. “Bars are all about efficiency and the larger one gets, the less efficient it becomes. Typically, bartenders only want three physical steps or less between any ingredient or a guest they’re helping. When it’s more than that drink times are long, customers are unhappy and the bottom line goes down.”
Resourceful, organized bars that simplify a bartender’s routine are top of mind for AvroKO, and principal Greg Bradshaw notes how Momotaro’s bars reflect this priority. The brokerage-board menu, for example, flaunts easy-access, slide-in and slide-out slats to replace changing items. “There’s also a small chalkboard next to each insert where the price is written, which makes it simple to update,” Bradshaw points out. “Downstairs, we made the choice to hang the menus around the awning of the rectangular bar, similar to how it’s done in the yokocho. The drinks menu is on one side and is an easy grab for bartenders to hand to guests and add an element of interaction.”
Meshing with the design’s cohesive, thoughtful complexity, naturally that menu’s backside features the story of Momotaro itself—written in Kanji characters.
Alia Akkam is a New York–based writer covering food, drinks, travel and design.
I know I am getting a little long in the tooth but the bar is disgusting. I want wood panelling, horsehair stuffed club chairs and discreet lighting. I want an English Gentleman's Club. I do not want loud music, vulgar people or their inbred relatives. Just a comfortable place where people can go to unwind from the life we have created.
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