[Update: they have revamped the reservation system somewhat, so this post is obsolete if you want to make a reservation. Good still for some history so you know why things are the way they are. Some info still are good, such as the slots.]
Characro is a … brand? How do you explain Namco’s side businesses in meatspace amusement? Anyway, there’s the IDOLM@STER Cafe in Tokyo that will probably run for the next foreseeable months. (That, and Tiger & Bunny, and Macross Frontier.) I went to the IM@S cafe a bunch of times, so I figured a guide & review is appropriate. Maybe I’ll cross-post it to HPT.
The cafe itself is no longer new & novel, since it started doing business last December, and the sheen is gone for Ps especially because it’s the kind of place you want to go a lot of times. The novelty can wear off fast if you do that. For me, I can stand to go there a few more times.
Oh, this is entirely different from the Cure Cafe Cinderella Girls tie-in, just to be clear.
Characro Cafe Akihabara (IM@S and T&B)
How to go there (JP)
Address: 2 Chome-5-12 Kanda Surugadai BF-1, Chiyoda, Tokyo
[It’s across the street from Garten, which is a certain someone’s regular joint.]
The IM@S Cafe is on the “other side” of Akihabara, but unless you are a typical American, walking for <10 minutes from the train station is a trivial amount of walking. At any rate, that is also the least of our concerns.
The Cafe works on a reservation-only system. This is tough for people who just want to drop by to visit, because you can’t. Even if the shop has vacancy they will (probably) not seat you. To make a reservation, as far as I know, it require you to use their website. I don’t think you can even call ahead and do it, but I might be wrong on that.
To make a reservation, there are two ways. The first way is by entering the lottery. The second way is to sign up for a first-come-first-serve spot as they open up vacancy on a regularly scheduled time. Since I did both, let’s talk about both.
I believe only in the lottery case you are required to create an account, so do that ahead of time if you plan on it. It’s fairly straightforward and I don’t think it even wants to know your address. You can put in any phone number I believe. Knowing how to enter your name in katakana is the first bar of entry for foreigners I guess but it’s business as usual.
If you already know which day or days you want to visit the cafe, come back the Friday (JST) two weeks before your scheduled time. That’s the start of the period of when you can enter into the lottery. The lottery is done in a weekly way, where people can sign up for a time slot + party size for a date during the week that’s 2 weeks ahead. To put it in other words, the cafe is taking the lottery submission for 2 weeks in advance, but you can pick any date to lottery for as long as it’s within the designated week span. For example, if you want to go during a time slot between March 30 (Mon) to April 5 (Sun), the lottery had to be in during March 13 (Fri) to March 19 (Thurs). So yeah, you might have to book like 21 days ahead or something. This explanation might be more complicated than what the website looks like, so just go there and look for yourself.
The results of the lottery get released some time on Friday after the end of the lottery entry period (usually in the morning JST), and that’s also when the second sign-up period starts, which is free-for-all. For FFA, just go to the website and use both the time slot picker or the weekly view picker, as sometimes a slot may show up on one and not the other. Slots are also filtered by party size, since there are designated and set seats for parties of 1, 2 and 3-4. If you find a slot and click through it, it will ask you to put in your name and phone number. Since this is first-come, first-serve, it helps to do so as soon as the seats show up.
If you understood what I’ve said in the prior two paragraphs you probably can figure out that: 1) this is not great for groups, unless everyone is very dedicated, and 2) this is a pain in the butt. Actually it’s not too bad once you get used to it and it is fairly efficient. The problem the lottery system solves is that the IM@S cafe is always booked solid on Friday nights and Saturdays, so it’s kind of a fair way to do things. I lotteried for a Tuesday spot for 4 and that was vacant as all heck, so this system does a good job showing you when the store is available.
Some other key things to note about the system is that they do ID check at the cafe, so you need to put down a name that matches whatever ID that you have on you (just for the person who made the reservation). And bring an ID when you go! If you lottery, you need to cancel if you can’t make it, and you can do that by a form on the site if you do it up to the day of, in which case you could make a call instead. Not sure what happens if you don’t.
There are a lot of other things you can also do if you have a group of >4 accommodate, but let me get to that at the end since I can probably spend this entire post on that.
The IM@S cafe does good business because, IMO, it’s hella pimp. It’s also not too different than these theme cafe type places where they charge you a lot more than what you get in terms of food, so don’t go in there with high expectations. For the discerning Producers, however, the value is all in the subtle stuff the cafe does.
As you arrive, people should be queued up at the front door, and you are encouraged to arrive before the designated time slot just so you can get a better seat.
The initial crowd will get ushered downstairs once the staff is ready to receive the customers. If you come a little later and don’t see anybody, feel free to follow the sign down to the IM@S cafe. It’s a slightly funky road downstairs but pay attention not only so you don’t fall over, but check out the displays set up along the way. You’ll be asked to line up on the stairs as the staff give you the once-over.
The once-over starts with an ID check and making sure you’re at the right place. You’ll be assigned an iPad of some sort, and it will have your seat number on it. If you want to sit next to someone of a different reservation, that’s time to speak up.
The second staffer will come and punch you in, Producer, as it’s time for work? Present your membership card (stamp card) for a stamp. And you can even get achievements based on number of stamps you go through. Various prizes happen at different points, so it goes. The word was that the Cafe was so popular, a customer maxed out her card before the Cafe thought about what to do for the lucky winner at visit #30. You will be asked to wear your membership card in a lanyard on your neck, which they’ll provide. If you have a big group, everyone will have to get that done before your group can be seated, but that eventually happens with most of us. If this is your first time, you can select a membership card that you will keep.
A waitress (or waiter, sometimes) will come and take you to your seat once you are done. Your table will have the same number on your iPad. The iPad is pretty cool, because that is how you take orders. If you’re done browsing the menu (which is split into drinks, food, and merch), you can either slot it in an under-table pouch or a stand at the far end of your table.
The IM@S section of Characro Akiba has a bright and fairly spacious layout, kind of a L shape. There’s a main projector at the far wall, and screens and smaller projectors make seeing the videos easy across the eatery. The decor is modern with a lean towards hipster, but the focus is core Anim@s, so it’s got that “Ai Like Hamburger” vibe to it, as it is a proper theme restaurant. Various alcoves display various IM@S merch and what not, with a dedicated one for the birthday girl of the month. In-anime IP gets posted on the wall like actual things, from Namassuka Revolution to the fake movie trailers we love. Visit the restroom (which is just a single unisex one) and check out the other autographed items?
The main game at Characro, IMO, is the theme drinks. There are fourteen of them, one for each girl except Ami and Mami, which shares one drink. Plus Kotori. At the time I was there, there were two special theme drinks, one is based on the Moviem@s theme, and there was a Spring-theme drink (both nasty blah). Each drink you order you get a coaster matching the drink, so you can definitely “collect them all” rather quick. The drinks are ordered from your iPad, as above, but you can also set it so it is either alcoholic or non-alcoholic. The alcoholic versions of the drinks are pretty much the same as the non-alcoholic versions from what I’ve tried, but that splash of vodka can make a difference in some cases. And yes, literally a tiny splash so you can barely taste it–I was not even tipsy after like 8.
The drinks are fun (be sure to order an AmiMami if there are any first-timers around) but the food is probably what gets more prop. They give you little white plates for your food, but it’s not really for sharing food (although you can)–it’s for the theme dishes, each comes with a printed…rice cracker(?) with the picture of the theme, and you can put the cracker in the dish. Like one with Haruka (going on now), or one with Takane/Azusa (for the roast beef pasta…?), what have you. most of the food items I tried are all good, above average I would even say. Order that to your heart’s content.
Food and drink aside, IM@S cafe is more like an amusement park ride where there’s a program that you go through during the scheduled time. After everyone’s seated, there will be a MC on the microphone explaining how things work. The videos being played is part of it, to set the mood I guess. Meanwhile you can talk amongst yourselves and order stuff while watching the highlights of Anim@s.
The main thing to take note is that there will be two events. The first one is a producer janken battle where the winner of the group janken gets to spin a wheel. The wheel will have a slot for each of the girls (except Kotori…?), and whichever girl gets selected by the wheel will get her Shiny Festa anime PV played (LOL) on the screens. And as you know, the appropriate behavior is called for here (eg., cylumes). The second event is just a straight up group song call, and it rotates between Jibun Rest@rt, Re@dy, Change, and probably some others that I didn’t hear. The producer that wins the janken doesn’t get any prizes, but the idol he or she produces gets a boost in the wheel’s surface area, giving her better odds at being selected. Which is still less than 50%, but it’s the thought that counts.
With each of the theme food or drink item that you order, you get a coin. (There is a full list of regular food and drink items that do not come with tokens, at the end of the menu.) What these tokens are for is silly, but there’s a giant machine in which you can put in all your coins in order to rep your animu waifus, as some would say. You can vote once per coin. A common thing people do is save up a bunch and do it all at once, as the staff will pay attention to it and get people to cheer if you put in a bunch of them. There are also the number games some people play, like tying up Ami and Mami, or keeping Chihaya at 72 as long as possible, whatever. The scores reset once in a while.
There is a set time window that you can order food, drinks and goods. After about 50 minutes past, they will close the food and merch orders (and your iPad will reflect this). Drinks goes after another 10 minutes after that. Actually I don’t remember the exact sequence, but it’s something around there. Make sure you get your last drink order in before it closes, because these drinks aren’t all that big (especially if you got one that’s mostly ice cubes) and you want to stay until the very end if you can.
A couple miscellaneous things to note: There is free wi-fi at the cafe. The connection info is shown in the info page on the iPad (along with other details of the cafe, like what’s in the previous paragraph). It’s very nice since your phone’s reception won’t be very good down there. The establishment is also cash only, and you will need to keep your receipt to pick up any merch that you order, which is available after you exit the cafe, in the downstairs foyer. Like most theme eateries the wait staff come and pick up your payment when it’s time.
There is actually a special birthday celebration program for any Producer at the cafe celebrating their birthday. To take advantage of this, your reservation has to mention this note, and confirm with the wait staff when you check in.
Hmm…I thought I was going to review it, but I ended up being too plainly informative. I went with a group and I went alone. It’s fun both ways, actually, but the cafe is naturally a good way to meet and chat up other IM@S Ps, so if you’re the kind of person who would do that, it’s something you can easily do here. When I went solo I got seated with the other solo diners at the big table. It was fun checking out other people’s drinks and foods, and it is a good first-timer’s guide to what to order in that sense. The menu does change periodically with new items added, so check ahead if you care enough about a specific dish.
I did not try every dish–they’re legitimately Japanese-size meals so I probably couldn’t eat more than two servings unless I was pushing myself. The salad, the tex-mex chips, the go my way basket (fried chicken!), the pasta, and the curry rice were all good. There is a dessert section in the menu as well, and I had the anmitsu and the donuts. Actually the donuts here are freshly made so it’s cake-ish and tasty… We didn’t really stray from the theme menu and explore the regular menu, which has a lot of typical bar foods and appetizers, something that’s largely missing from the theme menu.
As far as merchandise goes, I purchased the Nemurihime roulette manjuu. It’s actually quite tasty. The “hit” one is just a spicy version of the same thing, not flavored any differently besides being really hot. And it’s not even that hot. Another simple merch to pick up at the cafe is the Cafe lanyard. You can buy your own instead of using the ones they lend out to hang your producer card. At one point they sold binders so you can store your bromides and coasters, but I don’t think they do that anymore? Anyway, not a big deal. Speaking of which, you get a bromide for every 2000 yen you spend when you check out, pretty neat except that it’s random and all the problems that comes with. Not to mention the images are just caps from the anime.
So in essence this is pretty standard of a theme restaurant. It both under-delivers in some ways and exceeds my expectations in others. Like I thought they would’ve tried harder to make the place “IM@S-Y” instead of just some anim@s stuff threw on the walls, but the stuff that did stick on the wall were done in a very fun and detail-oriented way. It’s not a sloppy job even if it doesn’t look that way at a glance. The food was above average, and even the salad was quite tasty. The drinks are all over the place, some are big misses, a few are pretty good, and most are in the middle. The price is not terrible, seat charge included (I think the minimum order is 1 drink and a seat charge) but it’s easy to go to the 5k+ range if you’re not careful. Which is a lot for a meal, regardless of what it comes with. Judicious use of money is recommended here, although I guess the real culprit is the drink portions are on the small side. It’s not all bad if you’re aiming to collect all the coasters in a couple visits, but not so much for the regulars.
Which is all good, because by the time you’re done you forgot how much pain in the butt it was to get a reservation.
The TL;DR Midtown Lunch style–
THE + (what people who like this will say)
- It’s IM@S! And you can do calls while you dine!
- The food is better than expected…
- Friendly and youthful atmosphere.
THE – (what people who don’t like this place will say)
- Can’t get a reservation when I want to go…
- Still just gimmicky foods, nothing really outstanding.
PS. Groups greater than 4: Depends on the size of the group, you have a few options. If you have up to 8 people, you can aim for both of the 3-4 reservations available, as they’re next to each other. My group was able to arrange this by having 2 people pick up the appropriate reservations on a Tuesday, as you may imagine this place doesn’t get that much business on Mon-Thurs for large groups. Just let the wait staff know when you check-in at the door. The general rule at this cafe is actually if you line up to check in early and as a group, you can probably all sit together, tables permitting. I don’t have a layout map handy, but there are a bunch of 2-player tables along the sides, and one set of them is right by the 2 4-people tables, so technically it can go up to 10 if you all check in early. It will still be separate reservations and checks and tables, but you at least sit in proximity to each other. Another option is if a bunch of solo reservations check in together, they could all sit at the big long table for solo Ps. That table can host maybe 20 or 24 people, but since each P that checks in solo gets placed on those tables pretty quickly, you basically have to go line up early so the wait staff can put you together.
No, they will not move their tables. Just how it works, unfortunately.
Girl Drink ranking: Iori > Chihaya > Miki = Kotori (warm!) = Hibiki = AmiMami = Makoto = Ritsuko = Yukiho = Haruka > Yayoi > Takane > Azusa. I think. I don’t quite remember a few of these now. Based only on the alcoholic versions. The “group” drinks are not very good, but it might be worth it just for the coaster. Your tastes will definitely vary from mine.