The Benihana Experience: Parent POV

Pre-bill pasted-on smile

You catch a glimpse of yourself in the rearview mirror before getting out of the car.

“You’ve got this,” you tell yourself. “You’ve done it a million times before. YOU CAN DO THIS.”

Enter Benihana.

 The smell hits you first, like the initial panic you feel when entering a Bikram hot yoga studio. One part acrid animal flesh searing on a hot hibachi grill. One part parent fear and loathing. You face the fact that in a week and seven showers later, you will still have this smell in your hair. Like a campfire, but much, much worse.

You check in and are wondering how long it’ll take you get to the bar. You give yourself this short, achievable goal. You don’t wait until they call your name. You need alcohol.

The hostess walks you to your table and, much like with jeep owners, you notice that you are subtly nodding to other horrified parents, and they are nodding back. It’s a silent pact. “What we do for our kids,” your look is saying.

When seated, you always offer yourself up as a sacrifice shield between the other family at the hibachi table, as nobody wants to sit next to your kids … and vice versa.

There are two kinds of drinking parents at Benihana, and you quickly assess who you are seated next to. One will miserably order a Diet Coke because he or she has already likely sold a kidney to be able to afford the dinner. [Side note: At one point or another, every parent has tried out the cheaper versions of Benihana in which they shoot alcohol straight into your mouth through a ketchup bottle but the trots you get the next day never make it worth it.] The other has notified the server that she wants a Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc, to which she follows that up with, “And keep ‘em coming.”

Depending on the age of your kids, you are now either wearing a paper crown or using said paper crown to play Tic Tac Toe, both of which make you a die more than a little inside.

You wait for what seems like an eternity for your hibachi chef, as if he’s Eric F*cking Clapton and is building the anticipation. The smell is all over you like a cheap suit. You are now one with the smell but are thankful that you have gone noseblind to it. He finally arrives. Is his name Akihito? Akihiro? Akifumi? No, his name is Juan. And he’s just as uncomfortable with this as you are.

Much like the two kinds of parent drinkers, there are two kinds of Benihana chefs. Ones that are either new and/or utterly resilient in that they still care about pleasing the patrons. Others are zombies that are shells of the people they used to be. The latter will surely go through the motions, but as they light the onion volcano, flicker the hibachi lights, and make a Pac-Man out of chicken fried rice, you know they would rather be getting a colonoscopy.

If you’ve gone to Benihana enough times, you’ve seen a mistake. Hopefully it’s never been life-threatening like a knife gone askew. Most likely it’s been an errant egg roll across the blazing hot grill or a tossed veggie that didn’t land in his chef hat or pocket like it was supposed to. You never, and I mean never, make eye contact when this happens. This is for your sake as much as for his sake, as embarrassment by proxy is real. Even your kids look away, as shame is something that is easily apparent from a young age. They’ve now peeked behind the curtain. They’ve seen the real Wizard of Oz. Santa is dead. Don’t even talk about the Tooth Fairy.

Dinner takes at least three hours. You’re dehydrated and delusional. You’ve begun to rock back and forth like a rhesus monkey that’s never been held when the server arrives. You’re elated, as you think it’s time to pay. The end is nigh! And just as quickly, you are furious with yourself, as it’s just time for the ice cream. “Rookie mistake!” you yell to yourself (or it may have been out loud; at this point, you’re not sure).

They take your photo and you don’t even recognize yourself. At least you now know what you will look like if your family throws you an open casket funeral.

The bill finally comes. You thought you’d already been through the worst. In fact, you feel like you’ve just run a marathon, or shat out a baby rhino. But even after your gift card from the holidays … even after the $10 certificate your kid got for perfect attendance … even after you’ve been here countless other times … you are still left with sticker shock. You vow to be the Diet Coke parent the next time, even though you know this will never happen. “Community college it is,” you think to yourself as you look at your kids with an apologetic glance.

“Until next time, Benihana. Until next time.”

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