Thursday, June 4, 2009

Review: at_Home, 4F



@Home is the prototypical maid cafe, and is certainly one of the most prolific, with cafes on several floors of 2 different buildings. Each cafe has a different theme, and I'll tackle each one on separate visits.



I decided to check out 4F in the Mitsuwa building on Chuu-ou Dori first, in part because it's just around the corner from Popopure, and I'm essentially "working from the ground up" in this blog, anyway. So, while a lot of the rules and behavior may be standard across all of the @Home cafes, I'm going to treat everything as being specific to 4F for the moment. (4F here means "fourth floor".)


(Atto-Gumi Fan Club flier, front)

It's pretty easy to find @Home, because it's one of the most heavily advertised cafes in Akihabara, and when you approach the entrance there are posters everywhere. There's a small emergency staircase next to the elevator, but the expected way up to 4F is via the elevator. Once off, you're in a small alcove decorated with cute animals and toys, and with a small box of fliers promoting the Atto-Gumi (@-members) fan club. Directly ahead is the greeting stand, occupied by a young man who asks if this is your first time. If you say "yes', he'll give you a laminated card with the rules for the cafe, either in Japanese or English. The rules are mostly the same as my "Do's and Don't's", but with the addition of "Don't ask the maid for personal information", and a specific commandment of No Photos.


(Fan Club flier, inside)

When a table opens up I'm guided to my seat by a cute maid in a frilly brown uniform with white lace, trim and bloomers. Here, I get the full "maid treatment", with "welcome home, master", the maid helping me into my chair, kneeling next to me to explain the menu, and so on. A second maid looks on, staring at the manga I brought with me and acting willing to talk to me in English if I need it.



The menu illustrates the heart of the maid cafe business model: a 700 yen cover charge just to be in the cafe for 1 hour. 500 yen for a photo with a maid, 1100 yen for the entrees (curry rice, rice omelet, etc.), 1400 for the dessert set. If you get just the photo, then you can play a video or toy game with the maid for 3 minutes and if you win you get a second photo for free. Each photo is with a single maid of your choice. Since you're only there for 1 hour per 700 yen, all drink and food orders have to be placed 15-20 minutes before the end of your hour (and they write when your time is up on the receipt for tracking purposes).


(Bronze Points Card, Lv. 1, front)

I'm not overly hungry, and I want to keep the costs down. While the entree is only 1100 yen, compared to 1200 yen for Popopure, the cover charge more than makes up for the difference. So I go for the dessert set, which includes a drink (coffee), dessert and a maid photo. I have a choice of either the kuma-kun or usagi-kun cakes, and I go with kuma. A few minutes later, a different maid comes back to the table with my coffee, kneels down, adds the cream and sugar and stirs for me, then tells me that there's a ritual for adding an additional little flavor to the coffee. It consists of moving our hands like cats, chanting "nyan nyan hoi", and ending with a circular action over the cup. We do the "nyan nyan hoi" and she goes off to the next customer. The coffee is sweet, but pretty standard.


(Points card, back)

The cafe itself is clean, brightly lit, and laid out with small diner-style tables and benches facing a small stage. 4F's gimmick is that, beyond just being the perfect maids, the women also sing and act on the stage. On the wall behind the bar (yes, 4F does serve cocktails from 700 to 1000 yen each), a flat panel screen plays videos of the maids in full costume performing J-pop songs. The cafe can hold 30 people, and is almost full at 6 PM on a Tuesday. 2 of the customers are women, but they look a little uncomfortable. Most of the men are in their twenties, some look like college fanboys, others appear to be low-level office workers. The front staff consists of the one male greeter, and about 6 maids.



While I'm waiting, two of the maids get on stage and call the name of one of the customers. He goes up, is told to put on a pair of animal ears, and he gets his photo taken. A minute later, my name is called and I'm told that I have my pick of 10 ears and 3 poses (heart formed with our hands, cat pose, and "cute" pose with hands near our faces). I choose the giraffe ears and cute pose. I sit back down, and my maid goes off to embellish my photo.


(Inside elevator)

Then my dessert comes out. I'm told I can't photograph it, and that it's just going to have to live on in my heart. It's a fudge cupcake surrounded by dollops of whip cream. The two dollops touching the far side of the cup cake have little oreo cookies on them to make ears. The plate is decorated with hearts drawn using strawberry syrup , and white frosting is used to draw a mouth and nose on the cup cake. The entire effect is that of the face of a teddy bear (kuma=bear; usagi=rabbit). It's really well done, and the fudge cup cake has a strong, slightly bitter chocolate flavor. It's a little dry, but goes well with the coffee. I really wish I had a photo of it, though (the usagi cake is shown on the menu page).

A few minutes later, someone else's name is called, and he's brought up to the stage by two of the maids. The girls go through a short introduction, pulling out all the standard cute poses and speech patterns. The customer is getting the birthday special, and he'll be asked three questions. For each one answered correctly, he gets a prize. They are "what's you're name", "where are you from" and "what do you do now"? As his reward, he's surrounded by all 6 maids, given a special kuma-kun like dessert, has his photo taken, and the girls sing @Home's birthday song (the lyrics of which describe the deliciousness of the dessert he's been given).


(With maid Uno-chan)

I pay my bill at the table, and for the cup cake, coffee and photo, the total is 2100 yen ($21). I also get a bronze point card. For each visit, I get a stamp. 5 stamps and I level up to Silver rank. It's then 50 visits to get to Gold level. Black is the highest level and requires 2000 visits. With Silver level (Familiar Master), the maids call you by name; at Gold, you get your first present. The details regarding the Black card are kept secret. The cover charge gets reduced at the higher card levels. Since there are 5 different @Home cafes, and all of them use the same card, I should be able to go to Silver pretty easily within the 6 month deadline. When I leave I'm guided to the door and everyone shouts, "please come back, master!"



@Home 4F fits exactly the definition of a maid cafe. You're treated like the master of the house, the maids prepare the food for you at the table, and they're all cute. I can't comment on the quality of the entrees, but the dessert was good, if on the small side. But, it's pricey. You don't go here for the food - you go for the experience. This is the height of performance art. I didn't get to see any of the stage shows, but the videos indicated that at least a few of the women can sing and dance in front of a camera. Also, @Home is well aware of their customer base - in front of the elevator there's a sign for the tourists showing which cafe has English speakers on staff that day. (They also have a free fan club you can sign up for from the website, and special maid photos you can download to your cell phone.)

Summary:
Name: @Home 4F
Location: Just around the corner from Chuu-ou Dori, near the JR Akihabara station, on the 4th floor.
Price: Moderately-High. 700 yen cover just to get inside for 1 hour.
Food: Standard food and soft drink selection, and quality. Some alcoholic mixed drinks.
Service: Very friendly and outgoing
"Love": Drawing of your choice on the food. The "nyan nyan hoi" chant over your drink.
Outfits: Brown maid dress with white frills
Photos: 500 yen, with one maid, or 1400 yen as part of the dessert set.
Wireless Internet: (?) (No laptops in evidence when I was there.)
Specialties: Some English-speaking staff; staff can sing and perform on stage, as well as behaving like the prototypical "moe" maids. Maids will play video games with the customers for prizes. Website in English.
Recommendation: Recommended. I had fun. Expect to stay at least 45 minutes, though, since the service can be slow at peak times.

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