Daniel Robson tries a theme restaurant with no strings attached
Well, it only took 47 years, but finally Tracy Island has come to life in Tokyo in the form of the charming Thunderbirds Cafe. A collaboration with Pasela, the karaoke operator behind the Dragon Quest-themed Luida’s Bar in Roppongi, Thunderbirds Cafe is located in Tokyo’s old downtown area, close to Ochanomizu and Jinbocho stations – a world away from the hustle and bustle of the more central Shibuya or Shinjuku areas.
It nails the vibe of the 1960s TV show perfectly. Clambering down the stairs among dense faux-foliage to the restaurant’s basement entrance – a lavish red leather door – visitors are greeted by a spacious hall decked out in thrall to International Rescue, those pioneering puppets who saved the world week in, week out. All the music is taken from the show, a mix of tropical tiki pop and dramatic adventure scores, and mute TV screens show episodes on loop.
Thunderbirds used to have a strong following in Japan, leading to the spinoff anime series Scientific Rescue Team TechnoVoyager on Fuji TV in 1982; music from the show has been covered by countless rock, metal and jazz bands. But in 2012 it’s not such a hot property. I ask a young waitress whether she had heard of the show before starting work at the Thunderbirds Cafe and she replies, “I knew of Thunderbirds a bit because my mum and dad were big fans, but working here has been… an education.”
The cafe was put together at the behest of publisher DeAgostini, whose Thunderbirds DVD-and-booklet partwork series shifts some 25,000 copies a month in Japan; the cafe thus exists to help boost sales, and opened in June for “at least” one year.
So that explains why. But even as a promotional exercise, DeAgostini and Pasela have really designed this place with care. Adorning one wall is a series of five video frames, just like in Jeff Tracy’s lounge, containing portraits of his sons Scott, Virgil, John, Gordon and Alan Tracy that occasionally sputter to life in glorious Supermarionation. Models of Thunderbirds 1 to 5 and various sets are everywhere – in recesses on the walls, hidden in the ceiling, resting on the cocktail bar – while the tropical resort theme extends to the staff wearing flowers in their hair.
The drinks menu features cocktails adorned with cute palm-tree-shaped muddlers, ice cream floats, a Brains special cola laced with popping candy and, befitting of International Rescue, a selection of beers from all around the world.
But the food is the fun part: The star attraction is the Tracy Island Loco Moco (980 yen (£7.85), a Hawaiian-style hamburger dish sculpted as International Rescue’s secret Pacific Ocean base, with a smoky barbecue sausage and some sort of deep-fried fish-paste stick poking up ready for launch.
The Thunderbird 1 Nama Haru Maki (680 yen (£5.50)), meanwhile, is a portion of Thai fresh spring rolls arranged into the shape of the iconic rocket, with a prawn head as its nose cone and served with a tangy piquant dipping sauce.
On leaving, I’m handed a stamp card – visit five times to receive a surprise gift. The numbers on the stamp card run “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” – another little detail that almost tempts me to buy a couple of issues of the DeAgostini partwork, which is of course on sale at the cafe. It’s nice to see International Rescue so well represented here, bringing Supermarionation to the Super Mario nation.