Nihonbashi has been the major financial district in the center of Tokyo for centuries. This is where the legacy of Benihana began when Yunosuke Aoki opened “Ellington”, an innovative jazz music cafe. At this cafe you could enjoy your coffee while listening to jazz music, which was hip and a modern concept in Japan at the time.
Hungry for Sweetness
During World War II, it became nearly impossible to obtain coffee beans in Tokyo. Yunosuke felt that people were in need of something to lift their spirits and thought that sweets could lighten their preoccupied minds. He rented the vacant shop next door and opened a Japanese O-shiruko (Japanese sweet red bean soup with mochi) shop, called Nihonbashi.
A Single Red Flower
World War II had come to an end and Yunosuke returned to Tokyo. While he visited the spot where the shops used to stand, he reminisced and the sound of jazz music revived his motivation to start over and rebuild. As the story goes, his wife Katsu, found a lone red flower resiliently blooming among the burned down ruins which gave them hope to persevere. With Aoki’s determination, they rebuilt the shop and called it Benihana (Red Flower).
The Advance to Ginza
Yunosuke’s restaurant business was gaining momentum. Ginza, a very desired area for businessmen and merchants, was his next move. In 1956, Yunosuke purchased an existing restaurant on Ginza 6 Avenue (Ginza Roku-Chome). He began a major 4 month renovation and opened Benihana Ginza.
Crossing The Pacific
Business was now booming and Yunosuke could finally achieve his dream of expanding his business to the United States. At the time, travel and foreign currency exports were restricted. However, Yunosuke began by sending his sons to the U.S to study and research locations for a restaurant. After four years of research, he found a property in Manhattan, New York and renovated the interior to portray a traditional Japanese farmhouse. BENIHANA OF TOKYO opened in 1964 as a teppanyaki restaurant where chefs would grill in front of the customers with performance and skill.
Head Office Building Completed
His business was steadily growing. There were now nearly 20 restaurants in Japan. The Head office in Nihonbashi was in need of updating and expansion, so plans to build a new office began. After more than a year of construction, the 9-story Benihana office building was completed.
Montalcino closed and after some renovation, a new restaurant, Benihana Grill opened. The concept was to appeal to a younger audience than Benihana Bekkan. The menu is centered around meat dishes in combination with Benihana Bekkan’s very popular cocotte curry.
Within a year after the grand opening, Benihana became one of the most popular coffee shops in Nihonbashi, thanks to the efforts of Yunosuke and the staff. He decided it was time to establish Benihana as a corporation.
With the success of the coffee shop, Yunosuke yearned to expand. He renovated part of the second floor of the coffee shop into a restaurant. The following year, the entire second floor was converted into a restaurant and continued to be successful. This business became his main restaurant called Benihana, this marked the beginning of his venture into the restaurant business.
Yunosuke steadily gained confidence in the success of his restaurant and eventually opened a second branch in the Kato building at Nihonbashi 2nd Avenue (Benihana Ni-Chome), which was later became known as Benihana 2nd Avenue (Benihana Ni-Chome) restaurant. The new branch was slightly more upscale and successfully differentiated itself from the main restaurant, Benihana. In half a year, the sales of Benihana 2nd Avenue were comparable to that of Benihana.
Barbecue Benihana to Benihana Bekkan
As the company began to grow, Yunosuke opened an office in Nihonbashi across the river from Benihana. He also expanded his company into other ventures and opened a bakery, a laundry factory and a farm. Then in 1955 Yunosuke opened Barbecue Benihana, across the street from his main Benihana restaurant. Barbeque was renovated in 1962 and renamed Benihana Bekkan (Bekkan which means Annex) with Teppanyaki on the first floor and Japanese style western food on the second floor. This is the Benihana Bekkan that is still currently in operation to this day.
Main Restaurant Closed
After more than half a century since the main Benihana restaurant’s history began, it was forced to close for redevelopment of the area.
The Kato Building began total reconstruction and the branch that had been operating for nearly 40 years, Benihana 2nd Avenue, was closed.
The New Main Restaurant
The reconstruction of the Kato Building was completed and a new Benihana main restaurant was opened.
The former Kato Building had only one restaurant on the B1 floor, but after reconstruction, it had three restaurant spaces. Benihana Company leased two of the spaces and opened one as the main Benihana restaurant and the other as a new izakaya-style restaurant called Benihana-tei.
The main Benihana restaurant in the Kato building closed. Benihana-tei had been successful for several years but in 2004 made a concept change as an Italian restaurant, Montalcino.
Tokyo Fire Bombings
As the War in the Pacific began to escalate, the Nihonbashi area was decimated by the firebombing raids of Tokyo and Yunosuke seemed to have lost everything. He worked hard to keep both of his shops running but was later drafted to work at a factory in Kamata, a small town. Both shops were burned to the ground.
From Sweets back to Coffee
After the war ended, coffee was once again imported and coffee shops began opening here and there. Yunosuke remodeled and reopened the business as a coffee shop called Benihana.
The Benihana Ginza branch was closed in 1997 and had temporarily become a parking lot. On this site, Benihana Company built a 9 story building and named it Aoki Tower.