TOKYO - Like clockwork, the line starts forming shortly before 11 a.m. Salesmen and stockbrokers, construction foremen and women out for lunch queue silently along a whitewashed stone wall a few steps beyond the subway station.
At 11:30 a.m., the first customers set foot inside the rambling old wooden house. They take off their shoes, pass a miniature pool stocked with carp and finally claim a cramped seat at a low table set on straw-matted floors. And they are grateful. After all, by now the line outside hallowed Tamahide restaurant may stretch nearly half a block long.
All for a humble bowl of chicken and egg dumped over rice.
Looking like a medieval farmhouse preserved amid the bustle of Tokyo, Tamahide could pass for a modern theme restaurant. A relic of Japan's ancient history, Tamahide remains the nation's holy repository for "oyako donburi" - "oyakodon" for short, a concoction of runny scrambled egg and boiled chicken served over a bed of rice. It may be the nation's original comfort food, and it remains one of Japan's most popular dishes. "Oyakodon" means "parent and child on rice."
Tamahide's fame is not just that it has served loyal customers for 240 years - 16 years before upstart Americans declared their independence from King George III. Nor is it popular simply because Tamahide's current proprietor, Konosuke Yamada, represents the eighth generation to operate the establishment. (His ancestors were official fowl slaughterers to the imperial family, the family says.)
No, Tamahide's greatest claim to fame is that it didn't just perfect this dish, one of Japan's first fast foods. Tamahide invented oyakodon.
"The taste of Tamahide and of oyakodon has been the same for eight generations," said Yamada, 39, to whom the heavy burden of running a venerable restaurant has passed. "In every generation, we make Tamahide's food in the original way."
And, he adds, "Everybody eats oyakodon," old and young, men and women.
Nearly every one of the 250 customers who troop through this drafty old house for lunch orders the same dish: the chicken and egg "oyakodon setto" or set, though men often go for the jumbo-sized portions of rice.
The dish comes in a red lacquered bowl, steamy and a bit crunchy from the combination of meat from the ordinary chicken as well as the fighting cock. Firm in the middle, sort of runny to the sides, this yellow-and-brown concoction of chicken parts and egg flows easily over a clump of warm sticky Japanese rice.
Yamada, with short-cropped hair and sporting a long, white proprietor's coat, is humbly frank about what brings in the drove of customers at lunchtime six days a week.
"There are four factors making this restaurant so popular, but the most important is that it's cheap," he says.
For a mere 600 yen - about $5.80 - Tamahide serves a large oyakodon bowl, a ceramic mug of chicken broth, pickles and tea. That's about the same price as a Big Mac and fries at the McDonald's around the corner. Prices at Tamahide haven't been raised in 30 years.
The patrons who troop through the family homestead each day obviously appreciate the straw-matted floors, the antique painted screens, the persimmon-colored walls and the miniature bowl of oyakodon freshly prepared each morning for the shrine of Yamada's ancestors, including Toku Yamada, the inventor of oyakodon.
Many patrons say they take comfort from these tiny slivers of old Tokyo. They transport them into a mythical past they can savor only through samurai dramas on television.
"It makes you very nostalgic to walk into a place like this," said Naohiro Yanagisawa, a designer of office spaces who brought four of his office colleagues to lunch, though the wait will be nearly an hour. "You walk into a restaurant like this, and you can smell the past."
"It's the atmosphere that makes people come back," said Hiroaki Oikawa, an acupuncture therapist who traveled an hour by train with his wife to stand in a 45-minute lunch line. But he admits, "The price is very appealing, too."
Customers also are drawn by the neighborhood, Ningyocho, literally "doll town."
Here, traditional crafts still blossom, even though the district of squat concrete three-story warehouses and drab, pencil-thin office towers is less than two miles from Ginza, modern Tokyo's Fifth Avenue.
During the New Year's shopping season, customers make Tamahide their lunch stop on a daylong excursion as they visit artisans who handcraft kimono, roast tea or make incense. Another nearby family shop, Hamaya, has a brisk business selling golden-colored sweet soybeans, or "mame," in beautifully wrapped boxes, but only to customers who reserve ahead of time, much like a Kyoto geisha house. Customers who walk in without reservations are usually turned away.
Like Tamahide, Hamaya doesn't sell to department stores or by mail order, or even operate a second shop. The recipient of the sweet beans is expected to recognize and appreciate the great difficulty the givers went through.