Call it cultural tourism, voyeurism, a geek fest, call it what you will. But when we heard that I Maid Cafe—a Cosplay restaurant—had opened up in Scarborough last December, we knew we would be taking the trip to Kennedy and Finch very soon.
For those who don’t delight in Japanese pop culture, “cosplay” is short for costume play. It started with kids getting dressed up as their favourite anime characters, which, if you’ve ever been to a comics convention, is not a uniquely Japanese thing. But in Tokyo, cosplay took on an “every day is Halloween” turn, leading to the creation of many small industries that catered to the Otaku (manga nerds), including Maid Restaurants.
Which brings us to why it took us so long to get the I Maid Cafe. A quick googling of Japanese Maid Restaurants taught us that waitresses dressed as anime-inspired French Maids and act in a very servile way. Some places even offer foot massages alongside sugary drinks. Our friend Molly, who told us about the I Maid in the first place, announced that it was sexist—a Hooters for fan boys—and that we shouldn’t go.
We agreed that it did sound a little creepy, but we could not resist the siren call of exported Japanese culture. We started the evening off with a visit to the Pacific Mall, the temple of flashy car accessories and bootleg DVDs, to load up on noodles just in case I Maid was so offensive that we had to leave without eating. This would turn out to be a very canny move.
I Maid is in no way offensive. It’s in a mini-mall. The décor is retro-80s black and white with halogen lights all over. There is no hint of backrooms where guests who pay extra can go and chat with a maid. While the Japanese versions may be a little pervy, what with the servers kneeling tableside and addressing the patrons as “Master,” this is Canada, and our waitrons are simple cute girls in not-so-naughty French maid outfits. In fact, I Maid owner Aaron based his concept not on the Japanese original, but on a knock-off he visited in Taiwan or Singapore or someplace. So it’s a version of a version.
None of the patrons were Otaku, either. Other than a group of middle-aged couples in one corner, the customers would not seem out-of-place in any downtown Bubble Tea place. Feeling comfortable that no women were being exploited, we decided to settle in, order dinner and watch Canto-pop on the Plasma Screen. This was a mistake.
I can’t speak for my fellow diners, but I Maid had the worst food I’ve eaten in a long time. I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten in one of those small town “Chinese-Canadian” restaurants—you know the ones with the wilting bean sprouts and fluorescent orange sauces—but the menu is similar. Sweet and Sour pork sits next to McCain’s Hash Browns. Bland bok choy is steeped in watered-down black bean sauce. The drinks had a Hong Kong flavour—only in places formerly colonized by the Brits do you find so many beverages sweetened with condensed milk on the menu—and were passable.
All we could talk about over dinner was how much of a let down our field trip had been. We had originally hoped to be enveloped in anime culture, but the closest thing to manga was a sort-of Naratu head drawn with ketchup on a giant scrambled egg concoction. We were afraid of overt sexism, but we ended up without even titillation. Plus, the food sucked. Still, my nephew wants to go there next time he comes to town. And I didn’t hate it so much that I wouldn’t go again.
Photos by Rhonda Riche.