Words from the food wise on finding the best izakaya

by Robbie Swinnerton

The izakaya, of course, is much more than a pub in the Western sense of a drinking establishment. While there will always be plenty of sake and other kinds of inebriants, food is an integral part of the experience — ranging from tried-and-true traditional “comfort cooking” to inventive cuisine with flair and subtlety.

Mark Robinson’s excellent new book “Izakaya: the Japanese Pub Cookbook” (Kodansha International; 2008; ¥2,800) captures the breadth of izakaya culture by spotlighting eight of his favorite places including Shinsuke (see above). His view is not that of an outsider; he has looked behind the scenes, chatting with the owners and cooks, and even inducing them to share some of their recipes (quite an accomplishment, as most chefs are highly protective of such secrets).

Along with plenty of photographs, the book has sections on the history of izakaya, an explanation of Japanese vegetables and aromatics, and a rundown on standard izakaya etiquette. Everything you need, in fact, so you can penetrate behind the noren curtain and get to know this essential part of everyday Japanese culture.


Coincidentally, the current edition of KEI magazine (Kategaho International Edition 2008 Spring issue [Vol. 19]; ¥1,200) includes a substantial feature section on Tokyo izakaya. Written from a more Japanese perspective, it introduces a score of classic establishments, including several favorites of the Food File (such as Kan, Nihon Saisei Sakaba, Kanda Shinpachi and Sasagin).


Two other useful resources for hunting down izakaya in the Tokyo area: Sake connoisseur John Gauntner’s “The Sake Handbook” (Tuttle, 2002) is an excellent primer on what sake is and how it’s made. It also has a list (now slightly out of date) of premium sake bars and izakaya.

Also, if you can still find a copy, pick up the out-of-print but still brilliant little “Tokyo Q 2001-2 Annual Guide to the City” (Stone Bridge Press). Among the wealth of detail about Tokyo, lovingly written by a team of longtime residents, is a substantial izakaya section.