Imagine your favorite neighborhood restaurant, a place where you know exactly what to order. Now think back to how long it took for you to find that place. Travelers all strive to eat like locals in new places, but gaining that ground in unfamiliar territory can be tough. For Tokyo-bound travelers, though, there's one word to keep in mind—izakaya. It may be a mega-city with endless, top-quality food options, but these neighborhood eateries offer a uniquely local experience. They're also the perfect introduction to authentic Japanese dining.
The word "izakaya" derives from the Japanese characters "to stay" and "sake shop." Traditionally places to drink, izakaya are ubiquitous in Japan. Though they are often likened to pubs, they bear little resemblance to the watering holes of the West. Akin to Spanish tapas, they are neighborhood bars that specialize in small plates, though the food here goes well beyond basic snacks. Many izakaya chefs are even gaining international renown for their dishes. Even at the most basic ones, you'll find top-notch sake and ingredients carefully sourced by the proprietor.
Characteristically small and crowded, izakaya are easily identified by their red lanterns. In such a local venue, heads may turn as you enter. Menus are rarely in English, but most patrons are regulars, so just order a drink and point to what others are eating. If you're feeling brave, ask for the chef's osusume (recommendation) or flash a smile to nearby diners, who will often share suggestions, a friendly toast, or even a bite.
There are tens of thousands of shops to try, from Okinawa to Hokkaido. Here are five of our favorites. Before you go, practice saying the word oishii (delicious). You'll need it. Plus, praise the proprietor enough and you'll find yourself with a bottomless glass of sake and some new friends.
Tucked almost underneath the north side of Shibuya station, Morimoto is a no-frills, rapid-fire, yakitori joint. Packed with after work salary men, it is the birthplace of meat on a stick. Specialties here include tori sashi, chicken sashimi with wasabi; tsukune, ground chicken patties seasoned with onion and citrus; and anago, conger eel, filleted live, skewered, and grilled. The shop discourages lingering and a sign in the form of a haiku provides any necessary clarity: enjoy the food and then move on. People flock here for Mr. Morimoto's chicken and you'll still find him behind the counter after almost 40 years.
Hamanoue Bldg, 1F, Dogenzaka 2-7-4, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Descending a narrow stairwell from the chic streets of Aoyama, the soft light of Maru is half-hidden on a landing. Set apart from many izakaya by its refined cuisine and sophisticated décor, Maru may appear to be an entirely different class of restaurant. But holding true to izakaya principles, the food is unpretentious, the timber bar buzzes with conversation, and the small plates are meant for sharing. Highlights include irodori mame sarada, a salad of persimmon, beans, and endive; wagyu misozuke sumiaburi, Kyoto-style beef preserved in miso; and kujidori sumiaburi, charcoal grilled chicken with citrus and hot chiles. Despite the posh location and foreign clientele, Maru is anything but inauthentic.
Aoyama KT Bldg, B1F, Jingumae 5-50-8, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (near Omotesando Station)
Shinsuke is a classic izakaya in the old shitamachi district of Ueno. Shinsuke's owners have been in the sake business for eleven generations and it has served a solitary brand since 1924. Fiercely traditional, Shinsuke's focus is on top quality ingredients. Its old family recipes, like iwashi no ganseki-age, deep fried sardine "rocks;" and maguro nuta, sashimi tuna in miso; are crafted from local organic produce and the best line-caught fish. There are also a few twists, like kitsune rakuretto, a deep-fried tofu pocked stuffed with hot raclette cheese, the perfect Japanese comfort food. Timeless but modern, Shinsuke seems poised to endure for many more years.
Yushima 3-31-5, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo (near Yushima, Ueno-Okachimachi, or Uenohirokoji Stations)
Newly hip, the neighborhood of Kagurazaka bustles with university students and French bistros. But off the main avenue lies a world frozen in time. In the narrow barely-lit alleyways, once renowned for their geisha houses, are a handful of izakaya that are, by all appearances, ancient. At Isedou, the menu is simple—sake and a handful of snacks—and its proprietors are reserved rather than welcoming. One can sample old-world dishes like inago, whole locusts boiled in soy sauce and sugar, and eihire, dried sting-ray fin, which becomes sweeter as it's chewed. Isedou is best for the daring, but if you go, you'll certainly be transported back in time.
Kagurazaka 4-2, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo (near Kagurazaka and Iidabashi Stations)
Simplicity reigns at Fuku. Packed on any given night, the restaurant specializes in yakitori, slowly grilling only the finest, free-range chickens over a charcoal fire. Fuku's draw is in its perfect execution—everything is delicious. Try kashiwa, thighs skewered with green onion; sasami wasabi, rare-cooked breast meat with horseradish; and tebasaki, crackling, crispy wings. The vegetable dishes are also standouts; particularly good are the skewers of garlic and trumpet mushrooms, potato salad, and piiman bekon, a plate of Japanese peppers stuffed with cheese, wrapped in bacon, and grilled until juicy. Fuku is the best kind of neighborhood place, and if the neighborhood weren't a long flight away, you'd probably be there every night.
Nishihara 3-23-4, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (near Yoyogi-Uehara Station)
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Photo credits: Courtesy of Nat Andreini