Beer gardens are a summer institution in Japan. Sitting in a cheap plastic chair on the rooftop of a department store with a cool beer watching the sun setting and the neon lights flickering on is a great way to unwind after a stinking hot day. Now if you have first-hand beer garden experience, you’re possibly shaking your head right now muttering to yourself that the beer is overpriced, the service is crap and the food is garbage. Yes, yes and yes. However, they’re still a great place to imbibe the grand amber liquid, and if you choose carefully, you won’t be disappointed.
From organising parties at beer gardens around Tokyo over a number of years, I share with you the following nuggets from my experiences.
1. Think twice before getting the seemingly good value “All you can drink” course.
It might seem like great value, but your two hours at a really busy beer garden will consist of 15 minutes at the start waiting for them to bring your first round of beers and then perhaps 2 or 3 more rounds as the staff are so stretched. Often pay-as-you-go is better value.
2. Don’t order a f****n pitcher!
No matter how many times I tell people, someone always orders a pitcher of beer thinking it’s better value. It’s not. Pitchers are the worst value in the whole beer garden – people order them because they’re novel and they can pour beer for each other. Stick to the chuu/dai jockeys for the best value.
3. Don’t make reservations.
If you call a beer garden to reserve your table, the staff will tell you that you must order shitty Course A with crappy All-you-can-drink Course B. Except for the last two weeks of August, most beer gardens have plenty of space so you don’t need to book. I’ve turned up with a group of 50 and managed to get in – and without having to order silly compulsory courses. There are one or two exceptions – more about those another time.
4. Beware the food course…
Food at beer gardens is far from what you might describe as ‘gourmet’. Good french fries and edamame are about as much as you should expect. However, some beer gardens lack extensive kitchen facilities, so the course that you reserved may consist of a bunch of cold greasy food on a plate covered in aluminium foil. The irony is, if you just turn up without making a booking (see point 3) then you get to choose from the hot food menu.
5. Look for self-service
A few rare beer gardens offer self service. They have beer taps set-up where you can help yourself. This is the only time when “all-you-can-drink” is what you expect it to be. Not that I’d encourage you to break the speed limit here people but with pour-your-own you get the freedom to “open the throttle” so to speak.
6. Avoid Fridays
Especially at the end of August. Bustling and noisy is fun, but waiting in a long line to use the toilets and getting kicked out exactly two hours after you arrive isn’t. If you do go on a Friday, or any day in August, turn up early. This is Tokyo, so people don’t usually make plans before 7pm.