If you’re short on yen, big on pizza, and only mildly concerned about your future intestinal wellbeing, there’s just one name in town you need to know.
Shakey’s Pizza seems to be one of those all-American icons that’s only truly iconic in, well, America. I can ignorantly claim to have never heard of the chain until I came to Japan where it has ironically become more widespread and popular than in its country of origin. It has a somewhat storied history, which is worth reading up on Wikipedia if only for the amusing origins of the name “Shakey’s” and the restaurant’s surprisingly extensive list of pop culture references.
Shakey’s Pizza can be found in 8 different locations around Tokyo, with a handful more in other areas of the country. Personally, we’ve been to the branches in Shinjuku, Kichijōji, Harajuku and Takadanobaba (pictured above. The photos in this article were taken from a variety of locations around Tokyo). They all present the same kitschy 50s American pizza parlour ambience and endless (and I mean endless) ragtime soundtrack which will, if you remain there long enough, kill you (or at least the part of your brain that controls your sanity).
We’ve only ever gone at lunch time. Why? Because of their famous all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. Every weekday from 11am to 4pm (though sometimes til 5pm), a mere ¥850* will get you, students and other folk who survive on cheap feeds an untimed run at…
Thick-cut fried potatoes! These aren’t too salty but they’ll fill you up quick.
Pasta! The sauces are incredibly lightweight but not entirely devoid of flavour.
And lastly, the star attraction… the pizza! They’re all thin crust and what’s available on the counter at any one time can and will often change during the course of your time at the restaurant.
There’s also a selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, but they’ll cost you extra. You should also ignore those heartily-topped pizzas shown on the flags above… what you get – at lunch time at least – is far less generous.
The most easily recognisable local addition to the menu is lean on the ingredients and difficult to distinguish from the instant variety. Not a critical part of the experience by any means, but a welcome addition for Japanese curry lovers nonetheless.
A representative plate from the buffet covering all the major Shakey’s food groups. The idea here, given the variety on rotation, is to sample.
On the whole, the pizzas taste alright, but this isn’t gourmet fare by any stretch. The quality appears to vary from store to store, but connoisseurs will no doubt leave thoroughly unconvinced and perhaps even a little indiginified no matter which one they visit. Easily the best thing about this place, then, is the ever-changing selection of pizzas on offer and the imagination that goes into their sometimes questionable choice of toppings. Though these toppings can sometimes be sparsely administered, all the usual suspects are covered – you’ve got your pepperoni, capsicum, onion, bacon, mushroom, mince beef, tomato and yes, even seafood pizzas in the form of tuna, prawn and calamari. Eyes start narrowing, however, when you first encounter things like seaweed, corn, kimchi and, well, it’s not quite this (yet), but conservative consumers of pizza should consider themselves warned – there will be surprises.
Perhaps the most pleasant of these surprises are the dessert pizzas. Despite their somewhat oxymoronic nature, they are by far my personal favourites here. Never tasted a sweet pizza? You should. Or at least, you should taste one like the monstrosity above, which is topped with banana slices, choc chips and melted marshmallows all drizzled with chocolate syrup and icing sugar on a custard sauce base. I also fondly recall encountering one based on peaches and crumblings of chocolate cake. There was also a strawberry version but I only came across that delight once, in February, and haven’t seen it anywhere since. It’s a testament to Japan’s signature practice of importing foreign ideas and contorting them until they can no longer be called anything other than “Japanese” – I doubt these kinds of pizzas were ever sold at a Shakey’s restaurant in America – but nevermind that. The important thing is that they work. Deliciously.
So you keep going back for more, and more, and more, and by your fifth or sixth plate piled with all manner of pizzas sweet and savoury, you’re starting to feel a little ill. But the ragtime music keeps going, and, almost hypnotically, so do you. The hardness of breath and the general slowing of movement indicate that you perhaps ought to cool it for a while, but the chefs have just cheerily announced to that a fresh dessert pizza has just come out of the oven…
And then, when you’ve barely the faculties left to stumble out without passing out, you stop. You pass a sign like this on the way, with its proudly nonsensical Japanese-English (“Viking” somehow refers to “buffet”) and bi-lingual, foreigner-friendly notice telling you that the weird pizza you tried with the thin, red, hair-like strands was actually a “Pork and Kimchi” pizza, and that next month’s speciality is going to be a mind-bending “Burger Pizza”. But you can’t look at it, or any other food for that matter, until at least the following day, for fear of invoking the gag-reflex.
But soon enough, you’re back for more.
* Some branches (such as Shinjuku and Kichijōji) and have increased the lunch time buffet price from ¥850 to ¥1020, but this includes access to a salad bar with salad, fruit and jelly.
Various locations, check website for details.