It happened last month: Big news for British ex-pats in New York City.
Wagamama — an Anglo-Japanese fusion chain and casual dining phenomenon — opened in NoMad with a fancy, two-story brick, a wrought iron-filled dining room, a tricked-out bar, and the obligatory communal tables.
A quick poll of my fellow British New York transplants revealed what they really think of the chain eatery hopping across the pond. “Wagamama really opened in New York? Really? Well. That is good news.” There you have it: “That is good news.” (As an expat myself, I can vouch that this is what passes for extreme, edge-of-your-seat excitement in Britain… something akin to joy.)
The results of the poll showed reactions ranging from “Now I won’t have to deliberately go to Terminal 5 an hour earlier to eat at Wagamama” to “Knowing I can get ginger chicken makes me feel a little bit better about 2016.”
There’s something about Wagamama that just makes sense if you were brought up in the U.K., where the chain was established in 1992.
We’d never been asked to sit at communal tables like it wasn’t a penance before. We’d never been au fait with Katsu and ginger and soba. We’d never had anyone scribble our order on our placemat like it was no big deal. Suddenly, we were slurping noodles with our friends on a rainy Saturday, feeling as cosmopolitan as all get-out, with Topshop, Miss Selfridge, and Woolworths bags rustling at our feet.
Wagamama was the sophisticated choice for the pre-gaming dinner before office Christmas parties, the obvious candidate for a shy date during university, the scene of my fifteenth birthday party. It was a restaurant where you didn’t really need to bother reading the menu anymore because you always got the same thing anyway.
Steve Mangleshot, Wagamama’s executive chef, can’t choose just one favorite dish on the menu. “I’d say probably a toss up between the short rib ramen or the firecracker curry,” he reveals.
“No,” says one of my colleagues, formerly from London. “Steak bulgogi.”
“Chili squid,” another friend asserts. “Because of the dipping sauces.”
As for me, it’s noodles all the way.
So, what’s new at Wagamama NYC?
“We’re excited to be here in New York,” says Mangleshot. Watch this space for a Wagamama takeover — unlike another import, The Highlander, there can never “be only one.” In fact, this is the fourth Wagamama in the States, with three other locations in Boston. “We’ve created a stunning restaurant with a full bar and cocktail list,” Mangleshot says. “We’re also debuting an Asian-inspired weekend brunch menu for the first time.”
“Wagamama breakfast ramen?” One of my friends thinks about this for a moment. “Yes, please.”
“You know,” another muses, “I’m not actually convinced Wagamama is the best ramen in the world. No, Seriously. This is New York! There are really great authentic places opening all the time. I ate noodles the other day where they flew the ingredients in from Japan that morning.”
Wagamama is not that. And that’s entirely besides the point. We go to Wagamama because… it’s Wagamama. Even if you can’t book a table and you have to sit next to strangers. If famously British people can get over both of those things, you know it’s got to be worth it.
“Oh, yes. Absolutely worth it,” my friends agree. “We’re going there for lunch today, right?”