They have chairs in front of them; you sit, place your order, and your food is ready to eat within a few minutes.
They sell ramen noodles, yakitori, oden (hot pot), etc. Beer and sake are also sold.
Generally, they are open for business from 6 pm to 2 am. They are portable, and can be wheeled around.
People rarely go to them as their final destination for the evening: they are stopping places on your way somewhere else. They provide cheap, quick, good food, in an environment that lets you talk to your fellow diners.
A “yatai mura” is a whole bunch of them together, meaning a “stall village.”
They will also set up at fairs.
Yatai were first attached to restaurants as an extension of their kitchen to serve passersby in the 1600 to 1900s.
Street stalls were abolished in 1949 under the US Administration after the Second World War because they were associated with the black market, though the reason the Welfare Ministry gave was hygiene.
The Yatai vendors formed unions in the summer of 1950 to lobby to be made legal again, and by 1955 the Welfare Ministry caved in, but set up hygiene guidelines. Menus had to be limited, raw foods were prohibited and food had to be cooked just prior to serving. In 1962, they also introduced size limitations — the stall could be no more than 10 x 8 feet (3 x 2 1/2 metres.)
The movement to keep them alive was particularly strong in Fukuoka. By the 1970s, they were seen as urban assets and were actually encouraged.
The word “yatai” is also used for floats in a parade.