One of the more clever ways to keep warm while dining in a cold environment, the kotatsu table has been used in Japan for this purpose for hundreds of years. We're surprised it took this long for a kotatsu trend to, ahem, heat up in the States — but it's one that we are thrilled to say is gaining traction. At a time when outdoor dining isn't just pleasant but necessary, the kotatsu table is an underrated restaurant technology and a great way to create greater comfort for guests.
When indoor dining is common again, however, an investment in kotatsu tables — or kotatsu table heating elements — will still be a good idea, especially for restaurants with garden or sidewalk seating. Why close that real estate in the colder months when diners can enjoy cozy heated environs while getting some fresh air?
What is a Kotatsu?
Essentially, a kotatsu is a heated table that keeps the lower half of your body warm with a space heater as you dine. The table is fitted with an electric heater in the center, so the diners' legs are close to (but not touching) the heat source. A floor-length blanket hangs over the tabletop to trap the heat. Diners' legs go under the blanket so they stay toasty, even in the cold. In a traditional Japanese setting, diners sit on the floor, either on cushions or legless chairs, but you can build a hybridized Western variation with raised tables, too.
Early versions of the kotatsu have been around in Japan since the 14th century. Originally the kotatsu started as a charcoal hearth used to cook meals and provide warmth to the home, called an irori. Early innovators started draping these hearths with heavy quilts called kotatsu kakabuten, which trapped the heat, so they and their families could cuddle up and stay warm. The invention took off, becoming known as a "hori-kotatsu," which effectively translates to "fireside footwarmer."
The electric kotatsu, the standard today, arrived in the 20th century. In Japan, some people have rooms in their home designed around the kotatsu, with recessed areas of the floor, and a deeper pit for the kotatsu itself — think a 1960s Mad Men-style conversation pit, but timeless.
How do Kotatsus need to work?
Modern kotatsu tables are basically electric space heaters built into tables. If you choose to provide blankets, keep in mind that you will need to change them out between guests, as they are prone to getting dirty. Alternatively, although it is less traditional, diners can go without the blanket; the kotatsu itself keeps guests fairly warm, as it functions as an under-the-table space heater, although it's less effective without the heat-trapping blanket. Wakuwaku, an izakaya restaurant from Industry City's Japan Village in Brooklyn, New York, offers heated kotatsu without an accompanying blanket for outdoor dining —paired with overhead heat lamps, as well.
Another option: Dr. Clark in New York's Chinatown is offering more traditional kotatsu seating — but they've replaced the classic, heavy, heat-trapping blankets with standard white tablecloths. While less effective than a heavy blanket, tablecloths are still better than nothing, and it's a good alternative use for restaurants that already have linen service.
The best Kotatsu models for restaurants
There are some great kotatsu tables on the market. However, as these are Japanese products, so many require a voltage converter to work in the United States.
Yamazen Casual Kotatsu
This simple, classic two-top kotatsu table gets great reviews on Amazon. There's an adjustable heat setting, so diners can opt for their own heating preferences. The matte black finish is modern and sleek.
This dark wood kotatsu table receives rave reviews. Offering height-adjustable legs, storage, and a more rustic, bevel-edged design, this kotatsu table also offers adjustable heat settings. Designed to work for American 120-volt sockets.
This elegant kotatsu table has a warm, walnut wood veneer and sturdy rubberwood legs. The corners are designed to keep the kotatsu blanket in place, so it doesn't move — a design feature that seems especially helpful for those who are new to kotatsu-style dining.
The DIY approach
Most commercially available kotatsu tables are low to the ground, in traditional Japanese style, intended to be used on a tatami mat. Fitting a high, Western table with a kotatsu heating element, however, is not especially difficult — an average handyman should be able to do so easily. It is important to use a heating element intended for kotatsu, however, instead of a traditional space heater, because these are intended to be used upside-down, they require no clearance, and are designed not to burn diners. At under $100 each, simply adding a kotatsu heating element to the underside of your current tables is the most cost-efficient method, as well.
A zaisu is a Japanese chair with no legs but a standard chair back. They are traditionally paired with low kotatsu tables, and can be placed on blankets resting on tatami mats for increased warmth and cleanliness. There are many available on Amazon, including this especially well-reviewed model, and AliExpress, including this colorful option.
Alternatively, you can whip up your own version for taller tables with inexpensive heated seating cushions. Just like the beloved heated car seats, heated cushions can make diners' experience much cozier.
[Photo: Sjschen, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons]