A Japanese steak house as date destination seems like it would be win-win. The food is simple, tasty and fresh, cooked right before your eyes. And then there are the onion volcanoes, hearts shaped from rice and "fun guy" jokes by the chef to salvage the conversation if it starts to wane.
To test this theory, the two of us went on a faux date to Arigato Japanese Steak House in Carrollwood along with Times food critic Laura Reiley. We came to this conclusion: Having a successful date here is complicated and depends a lot on the comfort level the couple have with each other because the ability to laugh at epically bad jokes and fill the awkward silences between knife tricks couldn't be more vital.
Here is our assessment, girl and guy views, on six measures.
Hannah: The newly opened Arigato in Carrollwood is clean cut and the decor Ikea fresh. There are a few fish tanks, the one in the waiting area fun to look at while you wait for enough people to arrive to fill the 10-seat teppanyaki table. In the midst of the tables, a bridge crossing a koi pond adds a needed aesthetic and quirky touch.
William: Chances are the waiting room fish tank is going to be a greater topic of conversation than the dinner performance itself. I have to admit that I found the aesthetics enjoyable; I was a sucker for the futuristic, lighted Japanese-style windows that looked like something out of Blade Runner. A nice color palette of reds, oranges and blacks worked together for both a modern and traditional atmosphere. The lighting is definitely prime for a dating spot, low enough for intimacy but not dark enough to make you fumble for your food.
Hannah: I suppose this restaurant was perfect for the married couple of 30 years and the group of angsty 30-year-olds we sat with, but for a first date, or any newish couple, it probably would be best to save it for when you are cynical or senile. The appeal of the teppanyaki restaurant is undeniable, but if you are going on a first date and aren't the type who can mesh well with strangers and pretend to look amused on command, then you and your date would probably be better off somewhere — anywhere — else. If you and your date don't have experience interacting in a group, you will be left staring at the chef and his antics in silence, and you'll leave knowing nothing more about each other than when you walked in.
William: I can't help but feel you could get the same dating experience from eating in front of a TV screen. Instead of staring lovingly into your date's eyes, you find yourself shoveling rice into your mouth, affixed on the man who is preparing the next item for your plate. Even the commercial breaks were replicated here: You turn to your date in between the fancy tricks, make a few quips and then return to the almost hypnotized state. There are a few cuddling opportunities, such as when you pull back after your chef lights the table on fire, more from necessity than an attempt to be sweet. I was worried for our eyebrows.
Hannah: A suave chef is a huge part of whether you can enjoy your meal. Finding the balance between acting professional and completely goofy is tough, though, something our chef was still struggling with. The inappropriate, obnoxious heckling by the 60-year-old birthday boy at the table probably wasn't helping either.
William: As the kind of guy who is typically picked on by performers who interact with the audience, I knew that plenty of jokes would be at my expense. Guys, don't take a girlfriend here unless you have a quick tongue because you will be the subject of some light teasing. The flurry of knives and flames was certainly impressive, but the off-mark humor was enough to turn me off from the experience. You know that your in-dinner entertainment is lowbrow when even the chef admits he got his joke off a T-shirt from Walmart.
William: At first, the concept of sharing your date night with a couple who have been married 30 years sounds extremely romantic. However, when grandpa begins his bad comedy routine and grandma is too worn down from three decades of corny jokes to stop him, one begins to question the value of love. The shared table could be a blast with a triple or quadruple date of friends, but anything less than a double date is roulette.
Hannah: Like William said, if you were at a table filled with nine of your friends, or on a big group date, the entertainment provided by the chef would be the perfect addition just in case conversation was lacking. But sitting with a group of strangers almost makes you rely on the chef to make the fact that you are sitting next to someone you don't know less weird. It's actually almost like you're on a date with the rest of the people at your table, too.
William: I ordered the Karate Chop, a combo of sukiyaki steak and chicken. The chicken didn't stand out but the steak was moist and nicely peppered. Like the chicken, the rice and noodles suffered from a lack of flavor; sesame seeds and soy sauce were not enough, though the grilled vegetables are perfectly caramelized. Each dinner comes with a bowl of onion-based broth, ginger-dressed salad, vegetable fried rice and chow mein noodles, and two different sauces: Asian-barbecue-styled "Yummy Yummy" sauce and mayonnaise-based "Goody Goody" sauce. Our server did not ask us if we wanted dessert, though the menu lists them. If your first date happens to be celebrating a birthday, be sure you're up for the sing-along by servers that comes with a complimentary cupcake.
Hannah: The food was basic, and comfortably uninteresting, which could be a plus if you're on a date, since weird food should be the last of your worries. The chicken, shrimp, steak and scallops had minimal seasoning, relying on the grill and sauces to add flavor. The chicken was a little dry but it was nothing the Goody Goody sauce couldn't fix, and the medium-sized scallops were browned nicely but a little chewy. The Goody Goody sauce was tastier than the Yummy Yummy sauce because, really, who can say no to something made almost entirely from mayonnaise? The soup and salad starters were a bit out of the ordinary, an onion-y broth with mushrooms and soggy onion crisps. The salad was fresh and the dressing more tangy than the usual ginger fare.
William: While it isn't the most affordable restaurant for teens, the portions are big enough to justify the price tag. If you're buying, you'll definitely want to save up beforehand. The cheapest dish is the meatless Teppanyaki Vegetables ($13.99), which will leave non-vegetarian dates unimpressed. Upgrades with shrimp ($19.99), chicken ($18.99), sukiyaki steak ($19.99) or tuna ($22.99) are in the $18 to $20 range, but we'd recommend paying a little extra for one of the combo meals. For $6 or $7 more, a combo comes with two or more meat or seafood selections, so there's sure to be leftovers. Plus, when you order a combo you get a fresh container of rice and a serving of chicken with chow mein noodles. Leftovers are a fail-safe comfort for when you're crying the next day if the date didn't go well.
Hannah: When I first glanced at the menu, I admit I choked on my Coke a little. The prices seemed a bit high, definitely not prices for a spontaneous date night. These were prices for a special occasion; you're paying for the show at the table. I would also recommend paying a little extra for the "free lunch" they advertise so profusely — the leftovers. The convenience of having that meal the next day makes it almost worth the money.
Hannah Elliott is a senior at Robinson High and William Harvey is a senior at King High. Both are student editors of tb-two*, the Times' high school weekly.