TAIPEI Waitresses wield swords and flare flames at diners, who have to get past a moat before sitting at their table in the dimly lit dining hall.
The same customers are also encouraged to take photos with the warrior-like waitresses, who dress in black or red to look like ninjas in keeping with the theme of a dark but lively restaurant that opened last month in Taiwan's capital.
"The ninja is mysterious," said Ou Chia-wei, owner of the restaurant simply named Ninja, explaining why he chose that theme for the Japanese-style restaurant. "On that premise, we can do magic tricks and light up the food."
Waitresses working the barely lit dining room floor burn specialty menus, which vanish without a trace of ash, and send flames snaking across tables as customers watch.
A moat and screen of cascading water just past the front entrance make customers wait a few minutes until the drawbridge goes up, leading to a dark stairwell toward the dining hall.
There are professional magic shows, as well as cabarets, for those who walk in at the right times.
Ninjas were mercenaries who resorted to unusual warfare strategies such as espionage, sabotage and assassination from as far back as 700 years ago in feudal Japan. They remain a common, enduring theme in Japanese folklore.
Ou, who also owns a hospital-theme restaurant in Taipei, and his wife put the three-storey Ninja eatery together on their own without hiring a designer, said his landlady Ting Tsui-lan. The overall investment was T$15 million ($470,000).
"The owner had already liked ninjas and figured that would be a pretty obvious, visual theme for the restaurant," said restaurant sales manager Hsiao Dai.
Ninja competes with restaurants that specialize in airliner, dinosaur and toilet decor in a city teeming with theme diners.
Owned and staffed by Taiwanese, it serves Japanese food priced for office workers who frequent it at its location in a congested part of town.
Japanese cuisine and culture are popular in Taiwan, where Ninja has seen steady full-house crowds of 150 since opening in late January.
Customers are intrigued by the theme, with a 26-year-old woman saying she might rather work than eat there.
"We make friends with the customers," said waitress Tu-tu Lin, laying her sword aside to explain to the woman the tricks of her trade.
(Editing by Miral Fahmy)