While I am a big fan of classic American literature, I have never managed to finish Robert M. Pirsig’s philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. You see, I have not even the remotest interest in the inner workings of machinery, and as it was far too fixated with fixing motorbikes it did little to hold my attention. Okay, that’s putting it lightly. I found the whole mechanical aspect of the book duller than a Sunday night it Dullsville Tennessee, the week the plague’s in town.
However, as I was walking through the backstreets of Nagoya’s quirky Osu, it’s title leaped out at me, daubed incongruously as it was in huge letters on a redbrick wall. Perhaps it was the contrast that so halted me; perhaps it was the fact that in this land of bizarre Engrish, it was spelled correctly; perhaps it was a combination of the two.
Whatever it was that stopped me in my tracks, its result was that I noticed next to a line of classic motorbikes, a sign for a restaurant called Smash Head, also in English. And this sign read ‘burgers’. Well, as someone who is known to enjoy the odd burger, I couldn’t resist.
I was shown in by the owner, Daisuke Hattori, who offered me a choice of a seat at the bar with ‘the crazies’ (his regular customers, beatniks and bike aficionados) or at a table with two plush sofas. Being neither a beat, a bikey nor bonkers I chose the sofa, and flopped down in front of a menu. Daisuke recommended his personal favorite, the Smash Burger, a composite soul of the great burgers: cheese, bacon, egg, tomato. But while my trusty interpreter took the advice, I was drawn to the luxury of the 100% beef burger, absolutely dripping with cheese.
Pirsig’s title being outside had obvious resonance within, the place looking as it does like a garage-come-diner, which is not surprising as until recently that’s exactly what it was. For years Hattori-san had been not only customer but also benefactor of the combined mechanic shop and restaurant, pouring his savings into the sliding business. However, as his reserves began to dwindle, and just as he was about to walk away things took an upturn, and last year he decided to take the place over for himself.
Though the bike shop aspect has since closed, still the atmosphere remains, and the whole place feels like an American diner on some far-flung highway. There’s no polished chrome, brushed hardwood floors or gastro-chic here. No, there are cool bare brick walls, pipes overhead and the ambiance of miles of dirty roads driven, and as jazz pumps from the speakers, you can almost imagine Dean Moriaty whisking in in a whirl of dust, perching at the bar with the other crazies, tapping his fingers to Coltrane, digging the vibe and diving in to the food before heading out on the road once more.
Previously the menu had been pretty much all encompassing, but now Smash Head focuses on classic diner fare: burgers, sandwiches and hot dogs; and doing them well. My partner’s Smash Burger towered off the plate, as high as a greaser’s fringe, while my burger oozed with beefy goodness. It was moist, it was succulent, it was cooked to perfection. And, though the bouncy jazz rattled out of the speakers, it could barely keep up with my rapacious appetite, it was gone in a matter of minutes.
While my interpreter struggled through her dinner (the burgers are huge, and she’s only little, bless her), I got up for a walk around the shop; the only way I could think from falling dead into a food coma right there on the sofa.
I found what had once been the garage was now converted to not only dining space, but also gallery space for local artists, a shop selling Americana clothing, and a huge social space that fills up with the local faces of nearby hipster haven Osu on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, with the Smash Head brand adorning everything.
Eventually I returned to my table and the pleading looks of my dinner date told me that she couldn’t take another bite. With not a little concern for my busting gut, I took the remains of the burger from her and dove in. It really was bloody good, in that classic American style, and while I had absolutely adored my own meal, I found I had to agree with Hattori san, that perhaps everyone should go for a Smash Burger on their first visit.
Finally we both slumped back onto our sofas, and smiled greasily at each other, feeling nothing but the fullness of our bellies. Now, I’ve never claimed to be a religious man, but as the music mellowed and the tapping of counter crazy fingers slowed, a stillness crept over the place. Was this Zen, we were experiencing? I don’t know, but whatever the meditative effects we were feeling, it was coming from the exquisite burgers we had eaten, and nothing to do with mechanics.
What we had:
Smash Burger: ¥1100
100% Beef Burger: ¥1300
Heineken Pint: ¥900
2-21-90 Osu, Naka-ku, Nagoya
Tel: (052) 201-2790
Monday – Thursday 11:30~23:00
Friday – Saturday 11:30~24:00
Sunday and holidays 11:30~22:00
Closed Tuesday and second Mondays.