The three largest restaurant chains in Japan specializing in " gyudon" - a generous helping of rice topped with slices of beef with onion and simmered in a mildly sweet sauce - have launched a price war in a bid to attract new customers.

A lunchtime staple for millions of salarymen across the country, the cost of a bowl of gyudon at Yoshinoya, Matsuya and Sukiya has been cut by around Y100 (€0.79), bringing this hearty meal down to as little as Y250 (€1.96).

Gyudon is also a firm favorite with foreign visitors, particularly those on a budget, as well as the late-night crowd in the busiest entertainment districts because the restaurants stay open until the small hours.

Yoshinoya announced that it was cutting prices on April 7, four months after its rivals fired the first salvoes in the price-cutting war. Yoshinoya - famous for its bright orange neon signs and for snapping up locations close to busy train stations - tried to emphasize its commitment to quality by only using high-quality imported US beef, but the ongoing economic downturn has encouraged hard-pressed workers to rein in their spending.

The number of customers was down more than 22 percent in March on the same month last year, forcing the company to act.

The response to the cut in prices has been positive, with customers lining up outside the Yurakucho district branch of Yoshinoya at lunchtime on Wednesday.

The company - which has reduced its earnings estimates for the financial year to the end of February 2010 to a loss of nearly Y9 billion (€70.65 million) - has informed customers that its cut-price gyudon dishes will only be for a limited time.

Matsuya and Sukiya responded by announcing another round of similarly limited price cuts that made their versions cheaper - and consumers even more happy.

Yoshinoya remains keen to emphasize the quality of its product and says its biggest competitors remain convenience stores that sell pre-packaged food that people take back to their offices to eat or McDonald's restaurants - which has recently been embroiled in a similar pricing war with other burger chains.

With Japanese consumers opting to dine out less due to falling wage packets, several sectors of the restaurant industry here have adopted unorthodox measures to attract new customers. Buffet meals are suddenly very popular, particularly those served up by Tokyo's top restaurants, while at the other end of the scale, fast-food outlets are cutting prices and adding new items to their standard menus.