Roy’s No Treat for Vegans

When I moved here 20 years ago, Japan was a culinary wasteland for reasonably priced high-quality western fare. About the best thing going was Sizzler, or the short-lived Kenny Roger’s Roasters. So, when the first Roy’s Restaurant opened up in Tokyo’s suburbs–just 10 minutes walk from my home–it was a huge treat.

For the first time ever, Tokyoites could enjoy American-style weekend brunches, which were around ¥2500 ($25), or ¥3500 ($35) with unlimited beer, wine or sparkling wine. The service was impeccable–like when you left the table to use the bathroom and the waitstaff re-folded your napkin before you returned, the generous refills on french bread with whipped butter, and refills on drinks (you could switch between guava, grapefruit, or orange juices), including espressos and capuccinos (long before Starbucks made them ubiquitous). It was a rare bargain for luxury dining.

After brunching at Roy’s regularly for a few months, I realized I was putting on weight, and began to limit my visits to special occasions–of which I devised as many as possible. When I visited Hawaii several years ago, I also went out of the way to try Roy’s restaurants on Oahu and Maui, too. Who can forget their trademark oozing chocolate lava cake? Since then, while Roy’s has expanded across the mainland U.S. (even to my home state of Maryland), its restaurants have grown and contracted in Tokyo, where only 1 remains.

Although I have not dined at Roy’s in many years, it was not because I had become vegan, but because their menu rarely changed.

During my recent trip to Hawaii, a friend invited me to lunch at Roy’s in Ko ‘Olina, on the western side of Oahu. Skeptical there would be nothing for us to eat (yes, there is always a salad with oil and vinegar dressing, but how boring is that?), I called to inquire several days ahead of time. The person answering the phone wasn’t familiar with vegan food, but after some hesitation, assured me the chef could prepare either a “cilantro pesto” or a “tofu stir-fry”. Not impressive choices–unless judged against the Honolulu Bubba Gump’s, whose manager didn’t know the difference between vegan and gluten-free.

So, lacking a better restaurant suggestion–and for old times sake–we decided to experience Roy’s as vegans for the first time. While disappointed in Roy’s lack of variety and creativity (an ordinary tasting tofu stir-fry over white rice was the sole choice the day we went), at least they accommodated us. For dessert, we ordered fruit sorbet and sampled our friends’ chocolate cake, which looked dark enough we tried to pretend it didn’t contain any milk.

Later that evening for dinner, my friend drove us north from Ko ‘Olina to Waianae, where we visited the Kahumana Organic Farm & Cafe, which while not vegan, offered us a number of alternatives, including macadamia pesto and a Greek wrap sandwich (sans feta cheese). The non-profit cafe opened up last fall to provide the area’s indigent job-training and outreach programs in organic farming, as well as a model for sustainability, healthy living, and eating.

This post is also available in: Japanese