When you walk into Maid Cafe NY, young women in pink and white frilly maid uniforms bow and say, "Okaerinasai mase, gosyujin sama!" (or "Okaerinasai mase, ojou sama!" if you are a woman). The Japanese phrase means "Welcome home, master!" and this phrase sets the tone at the Moe Maid Cafe event at Maid Cafe NY on Centre Street in Chinatown.
Maid Cafe NY is the first of its kind in New York. Maid cafes are popular in Japan, where they have been around since the early 2000s. Waitresses cosplay as cutesy maids in pinafores and petticoats, and refer to their customers as "master" or "princess." The idea of a maid cafe is to provide a private home-like experience where maids treat their customers with a personal touch, as if they are serving the masters or mistresses of the cafe.
Typically, the similarities to a traditional Japanese maid cafe end at the uniforms at Maid Cafe NY and the "maids" act like any other server would, greeting customers in English and taking orders for pretty little pastries, bubble tea and a few Japanese comfort dishes like chicken cutlet curry.
Satoshi Yoshimura, the owner of Maid Cafe NY, said he didn't want to put off customers who weren't used to traditional maid cafe service. But due to popular demand, Yoshimura decided to hold an event in the cafe where the maids provided traditional "moe" service for $10 an hour. "Moe" is Japanese slang that roughly translates to "adorable" or "cute."
And the maids certainly act cute. Reiko, an 18-year-old maid from Brooklyn, said Yoshimura had experienced maids from Japan teach the newbies how to act. She talked in a baby voice and ended every sentence by ducking under a menu and giggling. "Every day here is fun!" she squealed. She shuffled around the cafe greeting customers in her white headband, lacy pink and white dress, white tights and pink Doc Martens.
Out of 16 customers at the event, 15 were men. One of them asked his friends, "Can you imagine what every married couple would be like if the husband were the master? Can you imagine how that would change relationships?" His friends shifted uncomfortably and one said, "That would be ... bad." The man then mused, "Or maybe it could be a holiday. Like on one day a year, the wife treats her husband like the master."
A maid approached a table of customers and greeted them. "How was your day?" she asks each one. One man answered that he was tired.
"Ooh, working too hard?" she asked in a baby voice. He nodded. She made an exaggerated sad face and then offered to play jan-ken-pon with a customer. Jan-ken-pon is like rocks-paper-scissors, but cuter, with bunny ears as one of the gestures. "Ooh, no. I lost again!" she said as she held her fists toward her eyes and pretended to cry. She knelt down at the side of the table, a signature touch at maid cafes, to take orders and bowed as she left the table. Back at the counter, the maids dropped their voices an octave and were all business as they rushed to grab drinks and add orders to checks.
Victor Bernal from Queens is a student at NYU and a regular at Maid Cafe NY. "It's like a home away from home," he said. "The waitresses talk to you and ask you how your day is going." Bernal has been studying Japanese for eight months and has always been intrigued by the culture; he first learned about maid cafes after he saw them featured in anime cartoons. Bernal ordered omurice, a special dish just for the event in which an omelette is served over fried rice.
Reni Mimura, a Japanese pop singer, was hosting the event and moonlighting as a maid for the night. She came over to draw a design on his omurice with ketchup. In Japanese, she wrote to Bernal, "I like you" and drew a heart underneath. The maids also drew bunnies and hearts and wrote messages on menus and plastic bubble tea cups.
Lawrence Asperilla, 25, of Teaneck, N.J., is a seasoned maid cafe tourist. He has been to maid cafes in Tokyo, Sapporo, Osaka and Nagoya. "They're a really good place to find out about local attractions," he explained. Asperilla said he found the service at the Moe Maid Cafe very similar to that of maid cafes in Japan. "They talk a lot with you and play games with you like Jenga, Pop A Pirate or Darts," he said.
John Lewis, 28, of Queens works as a server at another restaurant, but still enjoys spending his off time at the cafe. "They have cute maids here," he smiled. "That's all I can say."
Yoshimura, who also promotes J-pop (Japanese pop music) events and artists, hopes to make his cafe a hub for anime fans all over New York. "We have seen a growing population of Japanese anime fans as well as people who are interested in kawaii (cute) culture from Japan," he said. "We are planning to have a lot of events to make our venue a mecca of kawaii culture in New York City." The cafe hosts various cosplay and anime events, as well as monthly Maid Shows where maids dance and sing for customers.
Follow Andrea Park on Twitter: @andreapark