Last night I watched a TBS rerun of my favorite episode of any TV show this decade: the Benihana Christmas episode of The Office. The levels on which I love this episode are many - the cruel rivalry between the Party Planning Committee and the Committee to Plan Parties; the way Michael repeats the same 30-second iTunes clip of some awful love song to indicate his heartache (but not enough heartache to buy the whole song), the karaoke jam at the end of the show, and, most of all, the trip to Benihana. Now there are some inaccuracies in there - there is no way there's a Benihana in Scranton. When I was a kid living in Doylestown, we had to all the way to Bala Cynwyd (yes that's spelled correctly) for Benihana. Bala Cynwyd is right outside Philadelphia. It would always rain on the way there or on the way back. The drive was 25 miles but seemed like forever (in a good way, as I look back). But that was the 80s and this is today so let me check if there actually is a Benihana in Scranton.
(going to Benihana website)
(wow - they closed down the one in Bala Cynwyd)
(nope - nothing within 120 miles of Scranton)
(yes I know it's fiction but still...)
Benihana was the ultimate dining experience for my family, all the way to my third of four graduation dinners when we went to the one in Anaheim. I would look forward to the theatrical Japanese cooking show that a trip to Benihana delivered. I would be afraid of (and excited by) the fire and the knives. I would wonder what those red drinks were that my parents were drinking. I would take everyone's extra food as my adolescent stomach accepted more and more salty goodness without repercussions.
Often there would be a wait, so the staff could ready the table for 4 (or, during the late 80s and early 90s visits, 5, 6, or 7 or more). In the lobby there would always a photo montage of the Benihana founder Rocky Aoki - the jetsetting silky rich race car-driving playboy. I think my father idolized Rocky Aoki more than he did anyone else. I think Rocky Aoki was the only man my father idolized. I think, in my father's mind, Rocky Aoki could kick Hugh Hefner's ass without messing up his beautiful Japanese hair.
Now none of these themes were exactly revisited in The Office episode. But what they did show was all spot-on and meaningful to me: the discomfort in sharing a large table with strangers, the wonder in Michael's eyes when he saw the onion volcano, the bad jokes delivered to (and by) the staff, the distant waitresses and their stupid robes, and the overall joyous theme-park-ness of it all.
It's off to the party.