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The best izakayas in Tokyo

Walk into most any izakaya in Tokyo and you’ll find folks gathered around tables overloaded with an assortment of sashimi, yakitori, edamame, cups of sake and bottles of Asahi. Here is Japan’s answer to the tapas bar, outshining most any after-work happy hour. The charm of izakaya dining lies in the variety: From crispy tempura to savory miso cod, each dish demands sharing and, sometimes, a little exploration.

Once the exclusive stomping grounds for sarariman (salarymen) to unwind their ties and ambitions, izakayas can sometimes be the domain of tobacco-puffing old men. But times are changing, with spots like Shake Kojima serving mostly female clientele. The izakaya was featured in a popular manga adaptation, in which a young woman ditches her co-workers to eat and drink her way through Tokyo. Even a decade after the original broadcast, viewers are still inspired to make the journey, underscoring the izakaya’s place even in modern culinary adventures. There are hundreds of other such spots, from the yokocho alleys of Kichijoji to underground bars in upscale districts. Every izakaya serves up a slice of Tokyo life – alongside specialties like grilled squid. Below are a handful of our favorites, the places we go to when we want to experience the best izakaya in Tokyo.

izakaya restaurants

The Freshest Fish: Nihonbashi Suminoe

As the towers of Tokyo’s Nihonbashi financial district began to proliferate and grow taller, developers took special care to preserve and in many cases not displace the area’s mainstream department stores, art galleries and varied restaurants, and so traditional establishments were often incorporated into the new buildings. The Mitsui real estate group, which opened the two Coredo Towers in 2014, were clever enough to include a classic izakaya, which they enticed away from the Tsukiji market. Now, every evening, office workers pour out of local mega-buildings and pack into Nihonbashi Suminoe to enjoy the collegial atmosphere and flavorful charcoal-cooked fish.

When we first entered, we were shown a huge assortment of sake from around Japan and the specially constructed charcoal grilling station for fish. Nihonbashi Suminoe prides itself on serving the freshest seafood and vegetables sourced from all over Japan, especially fish from waters around the southern island of Kyushu. The proprietor guarantees that your fish will have been swimming in the sea that very morning, and they are committed to running a complete sea-to-table business. Although large and located inside a modern building, the dining area has the feel of a hole-in-the-wall drinking place, perhaps in a corrugated tin hut somewhere, which conjures up its former location inside the Tsukiji market.

A standout nibble was the freshest of tuna tartare, presented on a dish with wasabi and nori seaweed, to be consumed as hand rolls. But the highlight of the meal was, of course, the fish. We selected ours from a basket of modestly priced catches, and off it went to be skewered on bamboo and placed standing upright next to a primitive grill consisting of a mound of sumi (natural charcoal) and some heat fences, Japanese-style. The server suggested we have them grill only half the fish and prepare the other half as a superbly fresh sashimi plate, which arrived while we waited for the grilling to finish. The sake was plentiful and kept coming, thanks to a waitstaff that makes sure nobody wants for anything. We were lulled immediately into the end-of-the-day atmosphere, and indeed, Nihonbashi Suminoe feels like the kind of place that could be the perfect way to end any kind of day in any city. -Fran Kuzui

Japanese pub food, Outside Binchoro

The Best Lunch Break: Binchoro

For more than 20 years, Binchoro izakaya has been feeding the sarariman of Toranomon and Nishi-Shimbashi. Rushing in to meet friends on their lunch break, we found ourselves rubbing elbows with others similarly on the go. Guys in suits and ties sat knee to knee with women dressed for success and madly texting, while at the next table two men in sweats wolfed down large donburi lunch bowls in a heady mix of locals grabbing lunch.

Toranomon is a commercial center in the middle of Tokyo that houses many corporate headquarters – not a neighborhood one visits for atmosphere. But we come to eat and drink at Binchoro, a rapidly disappearing, old-school version of a classic izakaya serving reasonably priced, perfectly prepared bar food and great drinks. As the Mori Building project, an urban development initiative, continues to transform the area, the building housing Binchoro will inevitably vanish like so many before it.

The essence of a nourishing, satisfying Japanese business lunch at Binchoro is the donburi: well-prepared ingredients served over a bowl of rice. When in season, you’ll find perfect buri, Japanese yellowtail. The classic buri donburi had miso-marinated fish over heaps of rice topped with sliced scallion, sesame seeds and flakes of nori seaweed, accompanied by miso soup and pickles. There are always at least five daily lunch specials. At night, there are various simply prepared fish, assortments of vegetables and a wide variety of sake. Although the food is well prepared, one comes to Binchoro mainly for an atmosphere rapidly vanishing in a quickly modernizing Tokyo. We hope to visit often before it disappears. -Fran Kuzui

Sake bar, Suju Dining Rokkaku 

The Most Miso: Suju Dining Rokkaku

Although as many as 75 percent of Japanese people consume miso soup daily, miso is also used in a myriad of other ways. Miso is, in fact, one of the pillars of Japanese food, and we never tire of exploring the many facets of this ingredient. One of the best places we know to deepen our appreciation is Suju Dining Rokkaku Restaurant in central Tokyo. The Suju experience was developed in the town of Karuizawa in Nagano, and most dishes are typical of that prefecture. Suju Masayuki opened his Nagano store and subsequent restaurant in 2012, hoping to recreate basic Japanese family meals and to keep the tradition of eating family foods alive. The izakaya branch in Roppongi proudly serves a huge selection of Nagano prefecture sakes with the food, and stocks a lovely selection of delicacies to take home.

Perched on the second floor of Tokyo Midtown, the restaurant has a perfect view of the garden and Tokyo skyline and – especially during the lunch hours on a sunny day – the feeling is expansive and restful. During cherry blossom season, the show is spectacular. There are several set menus that offer a great opportunity to taste how miso is used in Japanese cuisine in a simple, straightforward manner. The setting is only part of the pleasure of dining at this izakaya.

The set lunches are a very full meal and great value. The mainly miso-based dishes are offered with a choice of entrees such as thinly sliced Japanese beef in a miso sauce, black tiger prawns or perfectly grilled salmon marinated in miso, and a home-style fish stew of mackerel in miso. Dinner is a great opportunity to sample the 15 kinds of Nagano prefecture sake on offer (although there is a full bar during lunch service as well). The Sakunohana from the 125-year-old brewery was a standout on our last visit. This full-bodied typical Junmai Ginjo is never sold outside Japan, and tastes dry and slightly sweet at 17 percent alcohol. To help us savor our meals here long after we’ve left, we love to stock up on the packaged homemade miso sold at the small shop in front of the restaurant. -Fran Kuzui

izakaya in tokyo, Shake Kojima

The Salmon Spot: Shake Kojima

Just a seven minutes’ ride west of Shinjuku is a small arcade of eateries known as Okinawa Town. Here, you’ll find an izakaya that believes salmon deserves a spot on the dinner menu – eschewing the Japanese norm of salmon for breakfast. The location is guided simply by cost: affordable rents means Shake Kojima can serve the best quality salmon at the cheapest possible price.

Traditional salmon dishes are served in a nostalgic setting. That’s clear from the entrance onward – slide the glass-panel door across to reveal the dark wood interior dotted with eclectic decorations and rows of sake bottles behind the counter. Visitors describe it as evocative of the Showa period (1926-1989), particularly the rapid period of growth from the 1950s to the 1970s. It’s a style likely to produce a smile and a nod to the good ol’ days.

The mushroom tempura, light and crisp, is served with a small mound of salt on the side. Nasu dengaku, a traditional dish of grilled tender eggplant, is topped with a melty sweet miso sauce. But the famed dish, the one that most customers come for, is the jōshake, premium tokishirazu salmon. The rich amount of fat that guarantees succulent morsels is apparent from a glance, as is the crispy perfection of the skin, lightly charred. One mouthful confirms the appearance: soft and juicy with a mild sweetness, this is no simple fish for breakfast, but worthy of the starring role at dinner, calling for chilled sake as an accompaniment. -Phoebe Amoroso

Kiyoi, tokyo 

The Sake-Lover’s Dream: Kiyoi

Bustling Shibuya has in many ways become modern Tokyo’s most emblematic district. Yet as sensory-bombarding as the junk food outlets, striking fashion choices and camera-happy throngs are, the fringes reveal an entirely different side to this area. Less than three minutes’ walk from the crowds lies a quieter street. Here, a modern yet simple wooden storefront blends seamlessly into its surroundings. Some passers-by might never notice the little sake bar called Kiyoi (formerly Kinari), but for those who do pause to peek through the small, slatted window, the interior reveals a scene reminiscent of someone’s kitchen. A counter, lined with large bowls of daily dishes, snakes across the room in front of cluttered shelves of mismatched crockery and a refrigerated cabinet brimming with bottles of sake.

Initially training as a beautician, owner Yuri Murai was inspired to open Kiyoi by her grandparents, who ran a longstanding eatery. In late 2013, she opened her izakaya, eventually expanding into the yakitori (grilled chicken) shop that was once downstairs. Echoing a Spanish tapas bar, most of Kiyoi’s daily dishes are on full display along the counter. The menu is simple and changes depending on the week and season. Our latest visit fell on a sticky and humid day in July, so we began our evening with marinated octopus and summer vegetables, after receiving a fervent recommendation from a gentleman to our left. Our potato salad was studded with salty chunks of pork belly and strips of sweet pickled kombu (kelp), unleashing waves of umami. Yuri selected a fresh and crisp unpasteurized sake from Miyagi Prefecture in the north to accompany our choice, and its clean finish made it dangerously drinkable.

Kiyoi is clearly a place where sake lovers can discuss the alcohol to their hearts’ content – or to the bottom of their cups. Expert or novice, everyone is welcome to proffer an opinion. Advice and tips bounce back and forth, and Yuri equally asks for feedback to guide her menu. “That’s how I learned,” she says of frank comments she receives about the food and sake. “In fact, I’m still studying.” -Phoebe Amoroso

meat at Yakinikuen Azabujuban

The Underground Grill: Yakinukuen Azabujuban

Friends lured us to Yakinikuen promising “an underground joint with the best meat.” Azabujuban, one of the toniest pockets of Tokyo, teeming with expats and embassies, is not the kind of place we’d expect to find a joint like this, tucked away in a basement. At this barbecue, the meat quality is exceptional and the prices exceptionally low. The man behind this chain of izakayas is restauranter Teruo Miyamoto, who passed away in 2019 at the age of 80. He boasted an interesting career of establishing more than 50 restaurants and bars under different brands, while taking a hardline stance on the yakuza and organized crime.

Yakiniku as a genre owes its heritage to Koreans living in Japan post-World War II, who, during a time of food scarcity, began grilling meat and offal for hungry customers. Initially, it was referred to simply as “Korean cuisine,” but the Korean War of 1950-1953 and subsequent ideological divide between North Korea and South Korea led to calls for a more neutral term, so the direct translation of bulgogi (Korean grilled beef) was adopted. Yakiniku literally means “grilled meat.”

Begin with an excellent homemade kimchi selection and namul, assorted Korean vegetables, before ordering meat by the plate. Kalbi is a must – thinly sliced and marinated in sweet-salty sauce, lightly garlicky. Then, harami, skirt steak, cut in a thick chunk, well-marbled with fat, only served with salt. Compare it with a leaner rosu, sirloin, and one of the store’s most popular menu items – thin slices of beef tongue. Mix and match as you throw slices onto the central round shichirin grill, cooking each piece to your liking. It’s hard to go wrong. The drinks list boasts a surprising range of great wines. With good quality, affordable yakiniku, a social style of dining and excellent wine, Yakinikuen offers a winning combination. In the upscale alleys of Azabujuban, it feels like a secret refuge. -Phoebe Amoroso

Published on May 07, 2024

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