The One Cafe Guaranteed to Blow You Away With Its Quirkiness

For four and a half years, we passed the sign to Chez Noir and ignored it, dismissing it as one of those cute little home cafes in the backwoods, only to find that the joke had been on us.

Cafe entrance. Those are real live chickens and geese.

From the outside, Chez Noir's ivy-covered facade looks only ever so slightly different from its neighboring houses up on the hill overlooking rolling fields and mountains. The chickens and geese that roam freely outside look like they never missed a meal. It is when you open the door and take one single step inside that you go, "Whoa!," scratch your head, and wonder whether you just stepped through Doraemon's dokodemo door into 1920s Europe. Uneven stone floors, an ancient wood stove burning to keep the place toasty warm, a huge antique chandelier hanging from the second floor are not the only things that catch your eye. Every possible nook, corner, mantel and shelf are crammed with period pieces and heirlooms, and if you're a Miyazaki animation fan, think the clutter of Howl's Moving Castle. The owners obviously love plants, which add a refreshing green in between the collector's items. 

View from the second floor looking down. An antique wood stove heats up the place.

Because the bell rang when we opened the door, an elderly man in what might pass as a German or Swiss wait staff outfit complete with a traditional looking hat greeted us and guided us upstairs to be seated. The walls look like whipped cream applied by hand and the stairs like the steep metal steps taken from an old rail station. Things don't 100% coordinate, but somehow the look works. Only after reading the magazine article on our table about Chez Noir and its owners did everything click. Mr. Kazuo Kuwabara built this house by hand, only learning how to along the way, and using industrial waste and materials from buildings being demolished. He salvaged doors, windows,  beams, tables and chairs from dumpster piles.  It took him 10 months to build the house, which is a fairly long time considering houses in Japan can be built in a third or a fourth of that time. "Once you start something, you see it through to the end," he said. His favorite saying is 塵も積もれば山となる which might translate to, 'Even dust builds up to a mountain.' Everything adds up and your small efforts one day will create something big. Chez Noir stands out defiantly to Japanese conformity and style. I love this guy already.

Prime seating on the second floor. Drink in the view of the rolling fields.

The knick knacks that beautifully clutter the house and which you would just love to appreciate at leisure have been collected from their travels in Europe. They sent back more than 10 huge boxes of their treasures here to Japan. Mr. Kuwabara said that each thing displayed means something to them.

Treasures, curios, objet d' art in every nook and corner.

The first year Chez Noir opened (in 1990), the Kuwabaras had a difficult time as very few people came. Then one day, they were featured on TV and some 100 people came the next day. Thankfully, the crowds have dissipated and we had a quiet corner to ourselves.

Now a quirky building alone does not make a good cafe or restaurant. The ambiance might be sensational but if the coffee tastes like motor oil and the cake like overbaked bread crusts, you're better off going somewhere else. You might expect a place called Chez Noir to have good food but also be expensive. Or learning that the restaurant is run by an elderly husband and wife team, you might expect the hamburger they're serving to be thawed from frozen,  the curry from reheated retort packs, the pizza made of sliced bread with a dash of ketchup, and the cake sliced from a gigantic Costco purchase. We were glad to be proven wrong on all counts.

The door to the veranda

The menu is simple. Hamburg set with drink for ¥1000. European style beef curry set with drink for ¥1000. Pizza for ¥500 or with drink for ¥800. Cake and coffee set for ¥500. My husband and I went there with our two kids and we ordered the hamburger set and two pizzas. Oh, and we snacked at home before coming which shows how low our expectations were (i.e. the food might be bad and we don't want to rack up a huge bill). First, Mrs. Kuwabara brought up two glasses of orange juice for the kids which was really thoughtful of them because the hamburger set really just came with one drink. Next came the hamburg set. It was huge and sizzling on a metal plate. We dutifully divided the patty into four, took a bite and were stunned. Mr. Kuwabara has done the impossible -- the hamburg was moist. Not rare but still oozing with juices and incredibly tasty. The grilled side vegetables were unbelievably delicious which says a lot because usually, one eats side vegetables in a hamburg steak out of obligation. The pizza was served on a round hot plate and completely homemade. You know the saying that anything tastes good when you're hungry? Well, we weren't (as mentioned above, we snacked before coming) and still found the food impressively good. Mr. Kuwabara makes the pound cake himself, drawing from his experience at a cake shop before he started Chez Noir.  Celebrities who have visited Chez Noir raved about how light and moist his cake was. I can't wait to try it and the beef curry next time. As we walked down the hill with a chicken trailing us, we felt sheepish for waiting all those years to "discover" this gem that was right in our own backyard. 

The exact address you can input on Google Maps is レストランシェ・ノワ 〒350-1252 Saitama-ken, Hidaka-shi, Seiryū, 113−1. From the foot of Hiwada Mountain, Chez Noir is a 7 minute walk. The nearest train station is Koma Station along the Seibu Chichibu Line. From Koma Station, it is a 21 minute walk, which may sound tiresome in the city but not out in the countryside where the mountains and the river turns the trek to the cafe into a pleasant stroll through nature. They are open everyday (yes, no rest day) from 12:00-16:00 only. Telephone number 042-982-2459.

Sherilyn Siy