Ichiban location: 50 Queen St., Glasgow, UK, and one other location
Izakaya location: 69 Front St. E., Toronto, Canada.
Since Wagamama opened its doors back in 1992, It's grown into a small empire of Japanese noodle restaurants whose aegis spans from Ireland to Auckland by way of Dubai. Long communal metallic tables stand in rows, built-in benches on either side. The staff use PDAs to put orders through to the kitchen, then scribble down the numbers corresponding to items ordered on each persons' paper placemats. Food is served whenever it's ready. The concept is efficient, but the practice is fairly pleasant, most of all because the food is good. C.'s apple-and-lime juice was fresh and tangy. My amai udon was nicely put together, the flavors blending into rich comfortingness. The white chocolate and ginger cheesecake had a flavorful spicy bite, with a dash of chilli mixed into the toffee, complementing the cheesecake.
The prices are competitive enough at Wagamama that I know students and faculty who swear by it was a nice way to have a meal out while living the costliness of London. A good balance between price and quality is also why the Glasgow Worldcon guidebook enjoined the attendees to check out Ichiban Noodle Café, a place whose virtues and physical setup - if not the menu - read a great deal like Wagamama's. I quote the convention guide, "This is first of all a noodle bar, plus some rice-based ones; but it also serves well-prepared sushi and bento boxes. This place cannot be praised highly enough." And indeed, a dozen or so of us had an very competent dinner there on the night before convention started. (Thanks to fjm. And where I met grahamsleight, autopope, feorag, and many others.)
The downsides of food served as and when it's ready was more apparent in a large group than a small one. Everyone around me had finished eating a good ten minutes before my bento box arrived. Several of them generously waited for me - and the food itself was worth the wait - but it did make for awkwardness, with several people long since finished and eager to leave, and three of us just beginning to eat. Perhaps that's exactly why Wagamama chooses to focus its menu on a tigher selection.
Wagamama's success is exactly why Izakaya opened to great acclaim a few months back in Toronto. The physical format is the same again: shared tables, hard benches, PDA-equipped servers. The prices too are competitive, with mains in the $9-10 range and "starters" in the $5-6. I put "starters" in quotes because both Izakaya and Wagamama emphasize izakaya-style eating, Japanese tapas. I had some tasty duck dumplings at Wagamama, and both the Toronto Star and Now reviews make me suspect that Izakaya's offers some good cooking too.
I don't know how closely these restaurants cleave to new wave Japanese noodle bars (can any of you tell me?), but I like the way the trend is spreading around the English-speaking world so far, with good food, efficient service, competitive prices. These won't be the last meals I eat at this new breed of sit-down fast food.