We arrive at Gogo Tea Café filled with expectations of great fun, only to be greeted by an awkward young waitress who seems seriously startled. She is wearing a short French maid uniform, complete with frilly pinafore and lace cap. I kid you not.
"One minute," she cries and scampers away.
We are the only Caucasians in this starkly modern, all-white restaurant located on the second floor of the Cosmo Plaza in Richmond. A second waitress in a matching maid uniform, one who presumably speaks better English, approaches a few minutes later.
"Would you like takeout?" she asks, rather inhospitably.
No, we'd like a seat.
She marches ahead to a window-side booth, throws the menus down on the table and rushes off without another word.
Good help at a maid café must be hard to find this side of the Pacific. Aren't customers supposed to be fawned over and greeted as "master" or "mistress"?
Gogo Tea Café is the local manifestation of a huge Japanese trend in which restaurants feature staff dressed in costumes inspired by the doe-eyed female characters in manga, anime and video games.
Maid cafés, also known as cosplay (short for costume play) cafés, first began appearing in Tokyo's Akihabara district about seven years ago. Akihabara, one of the world's best shopping places for electronic goods, is the spiritual homeland for otaku, the Japanese subculture of geeky men obsessed with anime, comic books and other forms of escapism.
The demure waitresses - typically dressed in kimonos or maid uniforms and sometimes fluffy cat or bunny ears - are there to pamper customers with batted eyelashes, exaggerated humility and carefully scripted dialogue. They will often kneel to serve drinks, or pour sauces on plates in cute heart shapes. In some cafés, you can pay extra for a maid to play cards and computer games with you, or to pose for a photo.
The waitress in a maid café is primarily an entertainer - a cartoon Geisha for the 21st Century. The role is submissive but there are, reportedly, no creepy sexual overtones. Unless, of course, the customer is a hard-core otaku with no social skills because he spends all of his time building robot models or immersed in an online fantasy world.
Cosplay restaurants, however, have now gone mainstream and are quickly spreading to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Canada (Toronto's iMaid Café opened last year). Some of the stranger traditions have obviously been lost in translation.
At Gogo, which opened two months ago and caters to a primarily Chinese clientele, the only reference to otaku (other than the costumes) is a single glass display case filled with plastic anime figurines. The patrons are mostly young university students. Many are playing card games, but not with the staff. When we ask to take photos of the waitresses, they giggle and hide their faces.
Can we buy a game?
"Oh, no," our waitress replies. "It's just costumes here."
The uniforms are more sweet than salacious, with loose waists and high collars. Most of the girls sport running shoes; one is wearing striped thigh-high socks.
Ginger, as she later introduces herself, turns out to be quite friendly, but hardly docile, as we've already ascertained. Originally from Taiwan, she is studying financial planning at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.
Would she kneel down to pour a drink?
"Oh, no," she says, slightly horrified. "I wouldn't like that."
We begin with a mango-peach yogurt juice ($4.75) selected from a five-page beverage menu. The café serves every type of drink imaginable - lychee frappe, peanut shaved ice, green apple milk tea and strawberry Calpico (the latter, a dry-milk soda, comes with pearls, coconut jelly or pudding for an additional 50 cents).
Liquor is the only component missing from the list.
(Before Gogo opened, the restaurant was called Green Element Dining and Lounge and was owned by Roger Chen of Delroye Enterprises Ltd. Last fall, Mr. Chen lost his liquor licence over non-payment of fines for failing to clear drinks off tables after hours.)
The Gogo menu is a medley of Chinese, Korean and Japanese sharing plates. We stick to the theme and order what sounds to us like a novelty dish - toast. There are actually five types of toast (from meatloaf to chocolate). We opt for condensed butter milk ($2.75), served on thick wedges of white bread. It's sweet and gooey and would be nice with tea. Not so much with deep-fried octopus balls, takoyaki ($4.75) or salty beef tongue yakitori ($3.75). What were we thinking?
Popcorn chicken ($6.75) is bland shake-and-bake bites served with noodle soup (dipping is optional), a platter of fermented pickles and pre-packaged grape jelly for dessert. Baked bacon with sausage cheese on rice ($6.75) is a bubbling, rib-sticking casserole.
Go for the costumes, not the food.
By midnight, Gogo is hopping. The atmosphere is laid back and convivial, with no signs of the rowdiness reported by neighbours of the Green Element last year.
The maids, not surprisingly, are horrible housekeepers. The night we visited, the carpet was badly soiled and the bathroom filthy.
In spite of its shortcomings, or perhaps because of them, a night at Gogo Tea Café makes for a weirdly entertaining cultural experience. And with a bill of just $32 (cash only) it's a lot cheaper than a trip to Japan or Taiwan.
Gogo Tea Café, 2170-8788 McKim Way, Richmond; 604-244-7336.