This feature was originally published in the April 2017 issue of Rogue.
Whenever someone I know is traveling to Tokyo to eat, I advise him to keep these two words in mind: “Don’t panic.”
You see, no matter how early you try and make reservations, there are just some restaurants you won’t be able to get into. Ishikawa. Kyoaji. Amamoto. Many such establishments even have actual barriers in place that even the most experienced concierges can’t get around. Twitter, Instagram, Tabelog, and other internet sites have created such a buzz on certain restaurants, it’s become harder than ever to book a table.
But Tokyo is a restaurant mecca and there’s no city I know where it’s easier to eat an amazing meal with no prior plans. So for every door you find closed, there are hundreds of others open and waiting for you to walk in and enjoy a good, or in many cases, an even better eating experience. The following is a list of 11 low-key izakaya (a casual Japanese gastropub) that I always eat at when I’m in Tokyo, ones where you only need to book a day or two in advance, or better yet, just walk in. Fantastic food, serious sake selections, and most important, no panicking.
Kadoya is my go-to izakaya in Tokyo, located in Nishi Azabu, just blocks away from the hustle and bustle of Roppongi. In this small 15-seat casual corner restaurant, a talented two-man team treats its guests to elevated Japanese comfort food and a rotating selection of seasonal sake.
Tachan handles most of the cooking— slicing, dicing, grilling, and frying almost every ingredient from scratch; guests seated before the open kitchen can only watch in amazement as he prepares orders with such efficiency. Taka, meanwhile, is a sake sommelier who knows his rice wine inside and out; expect him to quench your thirst with rare bottles he gets from brewers around Japan. On any given day, he’ll most likely serve something you’ve never even heard of, so simply tell him what you like to drink and he’ll recommend some selections. Tasting is encouraged here!
The duo’s food ranges from small snacks to pair with your sake, to hearty plates of deep-fried fare, featuring izakaya classics like karaage (fried) chicken, beef tongue, and skewers, to upscale options like roast duck and marinated cod milt. Don’t miss the potato salad and grilled mentaiko (cod roe). Open until 3 a.m., Kadoya is great for a quick bite, a full meal, or a late-night drink. No matter what time you show up, Taka and Tachan will make sure you’re well fed and liquored up!
4-2-15 Nishi Azabu
The great thing about Tokyo is that you don’t have to leave the city to explore all of Japan’s amazing regional cuisines. Anything you want from anywhere else in the country can be found right in the capital. If you’re looking to try some local dishes of Hiroshima, head to Buchi in Ebisu. Everything there—from the meats and vegetables used in its dishes, to the members of its staff, its glassware, and coasters—is from Hiroshima. It’s as authentic as it gets.
A night at Buchi is an education in Japanese “southern hospitality.” Open the menu and you’ll instantly find some famous food from that area, like Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki (savory pancake) and grilled renkon (lotus root). And then there are the unexpected regional oddities. Locally produced caciocavallo cheese? Hiroshima walnuts? Tart lemons? They’re all used as ingredients in a number of inventive dishes cooked by the chef on an open flat top grill. Many of the preparations also include the option of being finished “Buchi-style,” where Kewpie mayonnaise is squeezed on the dish and singed with a blowtorch. Buchi is simply full of surprises.
1-7-8 Ebisu Minami
Kagariya is not the kind of restaurant you’d expect to find in upscale Akasaka. Walk down a steep flight of stairs that leads to the basement eatery and you could have sworn you’ve entered a sports bar. But don’t let the decorations deceive you: Kagariya’s owner, Takada-san, is one of the city’s biggest baseball fans and his collection of memorabilia is displayed here.
The cooking is anything but kitschy, though. Kagariya is billed as a yakitori restaurant, but it is so much more. Everything on its extensive menu is organic and sourced from a farmer, butcher, or producer whom Takada-san knows personally. Japanese farm to grill to table at its best. The platter of raw vegetables from Kochi prefecture I had on my last visit made me think that I never need to eat meat again. The house specialty is a chicken liver tataki—smoky on the outside and still raw in the middle, it is one of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted.
The same principles hold true with its sake selection; Kagariya offers seven different sake menus, each focusing on a specific sake brewery. And each brewer offers exclusive blends and vintages produced for Takada-san that you cannot drink anywhere else in the world. Kagariya is always a home run.
An evening at Peshi is always an adventure. It’s where you go when you want to eat and drink things you’ve never tried before. Did you know that artist H.R. Giger based his design of the alien from the movie Alien on a scary-looking deep sea fish with no eyes? I didn’t, I until Peshi brought it to my table one night, one part of the fish served in hot sake.
The chef, Kishimoto-san, is a mad genius who thrives in surprising and delighting his diners in unexpected ways and with unique flavors. Case in point: his fermented chinmi—pungent, briny bites of aged seafood made to pair with sake. I once had the salted stomach of a sea cucumber and the dried inks sacs of squid, all paired perfectly with an amazing array of sake selected by bar manager and sake samurai Nori Nakamura. Nori works closely with small craft distillers as well as big brewers to secure interesting styles of sake that no other izakaya may have. But he’ll only put bottles on his menu if Kishimoto-san can create food with flavors profiles that fit them. Enter Peshi with an open mind, leave with a high level of blood alcohol content and food memories you’ll never forget.
1-8-7 Nihonbashi Horidome-cho
Swan Building, 1F
I’m warning you right off the bat: if you go to Hi Izuru, you’re going to get drunk. Very drunk. As soon as you sit down, you’ll notice there are large bottles of ukon, the Japanese hangover medicine, on every table. Take some.
Yes, they’ll start you off slow, with a dainty glass of beer. But when you order a second, that glass gets bigger. Your third beer might not be a glass at all, but a fish bowl. Then a boot. Before you know it, you’re chugging beer out of a four-liter vase. And then when the glasses can’t get any bigger, they switch you over to sake.
But don’t worry, you’ll never be drinking on any empty stomach at Hi Izuru. Chef Maeda and his team will fill your belly with plenty of Japanese delicacies—what they are you’ll never know as there is no menu at Hi Izuru. The food here is all omakase; the chef decides what to serve. It could be teriyaki tuna collar and foie gras stuffed meatballs one day, leg of lamb and marinated blue shrimp the next. The chef cooks what he finds in the markets each morning. Except for the pillowy Parker House rolls, which are baked fresh for each guest to help soak up all the alcohol in his system, I’ve never had the same dish twice here.
Nikura Building B1
Tell a Tokyoite you’ve been to Motsuyaki Ban and he’ll be impressed. This is the kind of place that not many foreigners frequent; English isn’t spoken here, and many people find its menu hard to stomach. You see, Ban is famous for serving skewers of grilled pigs’ intestines, which even the Japanese won’t eat. And because each pork part is named in a unique way, it’s hard to tell exactly what you’re ordering, much less eating, once the dish arrives. So on a first visit, it’s best to go with a local.
Another thing Ban is notorious for is its invention of a cocktail called lemon sour. It’s still served the same way: a mug filled halfway with shochu (a Japanese distilled spirit), a bottle of Hi-Sour soda, a whole lemon cut in half, and a lemon squeezer. It’s DIY from there; you squeeze the lemon yourself and add the juice and soda to the booze in the amounts that suits your taste. A few hints on a couple of no-grilled dishes you should order: the deep-fried liver, the chicken meatballs and raw peppers, and the macaroni salad. Be brave, try Ban!
Located just two blocks from Ebisu Station, Saiki is one of the oldest izakaya in Tokyo. You can feel the history as you entered the quaint, cramped restaurant now run by fifth-generation members of the family.
A few years ago, Saiki was featured on the popular Japanese food show Koduko no Gourmet (The Solitary Gourmet). Soon, lines of people waiting to get in stretched the block. Thankfully, the buzz has since died down, making it easier to get a seat at the counter or a table by just walking in; I’ve only ever had to wait about 15 minutes.
One good thing that came out of the added media exposure was that Saiki created an English menu for foreign fans of the show, so ordering dishes isn’t difficult. However, I highly recommend starting with the daily specials listed on the chalkboard. If it’s there, definitely try the sampler of whale meat, prepared three ways (raw, fried, and bacon) and whatever seasonal deep-fried fish it has that day. Another popular dish at Saiki is its motsu nikomi or intestine stew, which can sell out as the night goes on.
Meals start with a serving of three small plates of daily amuse bouche, including a salad and sashimi of some sort. On the drinks side, Saiki is known for its frozen sake, a slushie of biting booze which I personally prefer as an after-dinner drink.
1-7-12 Ebisu Nishi
Most foreign foodies may already be familiar with Omoide Yokocho (Memory Lane) in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, a narrow alley of shops specializing in classic Japanese street food, from yakitori to ramen and offal. It’s also often referred to as Shonben Alley or Piss Alley, due to the lack of toilets and the not-so-pleasant smell of the place. But odors aside, Omoide Yokocho is where you still find some of the city’s more interesting underground eats, if you know where to look.
Asadachi, a narrow, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it eight-seater eatery at the entrance of the alley, is worth visiting if you’re looking for an eye-opening evening. Morning wood in English, Asadachi specializes in animal parts known to enhance virility. The small counter is run by Onichan (older brother), who now runs the business with his mother after his dad passed away. Handwritten every morning, the restaurant’s menu changes daily, but there are a few specialties that are always available and worth exploring—frog’s legs, turtle and notorious tama-chan (raw pigs’ testicles), served with raw egg and scallions. Asadachi is not for the faint of heart… or stomach.
1-2-14 Nishi Shinjuku
Located near the tongue-twisting Gakugeidaigaku train station, Kudan is a bit off the beaten path, but worth the quick train ride if you like oden and seasonal sake.
Situated in a college area populated by students, Kudan caters to a much younger clientele, so a lot of its dishes are modern takes on Japanese classics. While the winter stew oden is traditionally prepared with different proteins and vegetables boiled in dashi, Kudan serves its version year round and uses a lighter, less salty broth, organic meats, and seasonal vegetables. Meanwhile, its meatballs wrapped in pork belly are grilled using a stalk of myoga (ginger) rather than a skewer.
Kudan’s sake selection is equally eclectic, as it chooses to work with brewers who don’t make the same sake our dads drink. Teru-san, who runs Kudan, wants his izakaya to have a hip, energetic vibe, where people can come in, feel comfortable, and hang out as long as they want. In this fast-paced world where many restaurants aim for a frequent table turnover, it’s refreshing to find an izakaya that encourages its patrons to stay and simply chill. Regular customers are even given their own sake cup, cleaned and kept after each visit, waiting for their return.
At Nihonshuya, sake is taken very seriously; in fact, its name literally means “sake house.” Guests are also treated like family, and the restaurant’s owners only ask that they give their outstanding food and sake the same respect.
Located in Kichijoji, Nihonshuya focuses on the culture of sake, and tries its best to educate patrons who pop in for a drink about the proper ways to enjoy Japan’s most popular alcoholic beverage.
It starts as soon as you sit down. After you pick your own sake cup, place it on the traditional stand provided. Here, sake, whether hot or cold, is never poured directly in your cup. It’s presented to you in small carafes, which you use to serve yourself. You’ll never look at sake the same way again.
For all its ritual and respect for sake, Nihonshuya is run by a fun-loving group of guys and gals who just want their customers to slow down and enjoy the efforts that have gone into the production of the drinks and food. Speaking of which, the menu is mainly vegetables and seafood, all prepared in-house. One reason I recommend visiting this place early is so you can get your hands on one of Nihonshuya’s homemade sausages. Only a limited amount is grilled each day, and it’s to die for!
Ladybird Building 101
Sakeria Sake Bozu looks and feels like a modern izakaya in the heart of downtown Tokyo. But when the food hits the table, you begin to question where you are. “I thought I ordered seafood fried rice? Why did I get a plate of basmati rice with cumin-dusted fish heads?” Or “Why is my pork shabu shabu already boiled and smothered in tamarind curry?”
Quickly you discover that while the sake selection is strictly Japanese, Sake Bozu’s cuisine is Middle Eastern-influenced Japanese food. After having worked at a number of other izakaya, owner Tomo Maeda wanted to open a place of his own, but one with an interesting niche. Recognizing that many of the stronger, sharper Japanese sakes stand up well against spice-heavy cuisine, he came up with this concept for Sake Bozu and created an outpost for alcohol unlike any other in this major metropolis. Chefs around the world are now embracing all sorts of Japanese spirits and trying to find ways to pair them with the food on their international menus, but here in the Aoyama area of Tokyo, Tomo-san uses his years of experience to expertly pair sake with these intense, aromatic flavors that makes for a dining experience unlike any other.
Rona YS Building, 2/F