When I sent Akiba’s menu to a food-obsessive friend, he was stymied. “I’m not seeing much that’s unique here. Am I missing something?”
On the face, it looks to be a standard-issue Asian creperie and cafe. Similar renditions of Akiba’s sweet and savory crepes can be nabbed at Belly Good or Sophie’s in Japantown.
For drinks, there’s bubble tea, mango jelly soda and a “beer taste beverage” called Fine Free that proudly boasts a 0.0 percent alcohol content.
Akiba also dabbles in “honey toast,” a dessert base that tastes a lot like sweetened Wonder bread. Uncommon, yes, but unlikely to shatter your pastry preconceptions.
The biggest draw, the element that sets this place apart from anywhere in The City, isn’t on the menu. San Francisco, meet Akiba, your very first maid cafe. It’s a kooky Japanese outgrowth of anime and cosplay (costumed role play), sanitized and streamlined for a U.S. crowd.
At a Tokyo maid cafe, your servile server is a young woman in a French maid costume. She may greet you as “master.” She may blow on your food to cool it down. She might even spoon-feed you.
For Americans who like the progress women have made in the past 200 years, maid cafes could make you a little tetchy. That may be why Akiba dials it back a little.
You don’t get any “Yes, m’lords,” the maids don’t massage your neck or clean your ears, and they don’t kneel on the floor to stir your latte.
My maiden server, sporting a conventioneer-style “My Name Is Nikki” sticker, had a helpful persona bordering on obsequious. But there’s a difference between role play and attentive service; it’s not like Nikki forked me my crepe.
On the walls, two flat-screen TVs show English-captioned anime. On one visit I watched an army of mercenary cats doing battle on their hind legs, while my friend was bored silly by a period piece involving — you guessed it — women in French maid outfits. The TVs were muted; chirpy J-pop provides Akiba’s soundtrack.
The crowd is a mixed bag. I saw tourists, loners on laptops, giggling teens, wide-eyed gawkers (who may have wanted lap dances) and cosplay kids wearing glitter, crowns and wings.
But for all the customer diversity, there was unity in the ordering. I barely saw any crepes emerge from the kitchen (for the record, the savory ones are fine sustenance) and I suspect I’m the only one who’s ever ordered the Spam musubi. But I saw dozens of Shibuya-style honey boxes served, each one looking like anime on a platter.
Each box is a hollowed-out loaf of salty-sweet white bread, with the stiffness of a buckwheat waffle. The box’s innards are removed and cubed, then everything is lightly baked. Finally the insides go back in, and gelato, chocolate syrup, powdered sugar, fruit and whipped cream top the bready oblong.
It’s warm and colorful and sweet, big enough for two, a loopy dessert to match your surroundings. Akiba is playtime for geeky grown-ups, a sugar-fueled, brightly colored escape portal.
Typical maid cafes may make more sense in Japan, where sundry sociological factors explain their popularity (I actually read a thesis on this). But it appears there’s a place for the scaled-down version under San Francisco’s big umbrella.