A legendary Kyoto restaurant serving kaiseki, Japan’s exquisite multicourse haute cuisine. A traditional grilled-eel specialist in Tokyo with roots dating to the days of the shoguns. An irreverent fast-food joint where fish burgers rule. The newly opened offshoot of one of Scandinavia’s most innovative restaurants. And a rustic inn that has reinvented the origins of sushi.

These five very different restaurants have little in common, other than that they’re located in Japan. And that each is in the running for laurels and fame when the inaugural World Restaurant Awards are announced in Paris next month.

Conceived as a radical alternative to existing gastronomic prizes and guidebooks, The World Restaurant Awards (WRA) were first unveiled last May. As Creative Director Joe Warwick declared at the time, “The aim is to celebrate the depth and diversity of the restaurant world.”

Warwick was actually one of the team that first came up with the idea of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, back in 2002. Now he feels it is too limited, and its ranking system does not represent the wider spectrum of the international restaurant scene.

Instead of another “Top 100” countdown, the WRA event will be modeled after the ceremonies used to celebrate the film, TV and music industries. Veteran food writer and broadcaster Andrea Petrini, the other main instigator, likens it to the Oscars of the food world, with multiple awards honoring achievements in a range of genres.

The 18 categories are divided into two sections. As well as the 12 major Big Plates awards — culminating in the Restaurant of the Year — there are six so-called Small Plates prizes. Idiosyncratic and intended to inject some levity into the proceedings, this section will include Tweezer-Free Kitchen, Long-Form Journalism and even Tattoo-Free Chef of the Year prizes.

The initial nominations were released in December, and the final shortlists went up on the WRA website (restaurantawards.world) in mid-January. All of the Japanese contingent mentioned earlier feature in the Big Plates section.

Hyotei, one of Kyoto’s most revered restaurants, is recognized in the Enduring Classic category — just as it should; it was founded some 400 years ago. Meanwhile, the Arrival of the Year shortlist, for restaurants that have opened recently, includes Inua, the Tokyo offshoot of Copenhagen’s renowned Noma (itself a four-time winner of the now-rival World’s 50 Best Restaurants list).

While both those entries are clearly in the realm of fine dining, several prizes recognize restaurants that are operating on a much simpler level. The House Special category is for places that are known for a single signature dish. Obana, in Tokyo’s modest Minamisenju district, fits the description perfectly for its unagi-kabayaki (grilled freshwater eel over rice), a classic shitamachi (proletarian low-city) preparation that dates back centuries.

In the No Reservations Required category, Tokyo has another, much more contemporary contender, Nakameguro’s groundbreaking Delifucious. Its “sushi-quality” fish burgers were picked up for U.S. chef David Chang’s “Ugly Delicious” Netflix series but ultimately didn’t make the cut. Now it has a chance to star on an even bigger international stage.

Inevitably, the best-known restaurants tend to be clustered in the world’s biggest cities. That’s where you find the people, the money and the hype. To level that playing field a bit, there’s an Off-Map Destination prize. The shortlist includes locations in Peru, Austria, South Africa and the far north of England — plus a very left-field choice in Japan’s Shiga Prefecture: Tokuyamazushi.

A meal worth the journey: Wild unagi (eel) from Off-Map Destination prize contender Tokuyamazushi in Shiga Prefecture.
A meal worth the journey: Wild unagi (eel) from Off-Map Destination prize contender Tokuyamazushi in Shiga Prefecture. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

Not only is the geography obscure — an hour out of Kyoto on a single-line railroad along Lake Biwa, and then a drive into the hills — but so is the food. Tokuyamazushi’s specialty is a modern take on narezushi, a traditional, very pungent way of preserving fish by packing it in sour, fermenting rice.

Chef Thomas Frebel of Inua has been following the WRA developments and his main reaction has been one of excitement.

Culinary star: Chef Thomas Frebel of Inua, whose restaurant is in contention for the Arrival of the Year award.
Culinary star: Chef Thomas Frebel of Inua, whose restaurant is in contention for the Arrival of the Year award. | JASON LOUCAS

“It’s different, and it’s going to stir things up a lot, in a great way, especially The World’s 50 Best (Restaurants) awards,” he says. “I also like the judging panel system. It is very interesting and exciting as it’s a great mix of industry professionals (including many of the world’s greatest chefs) and journalists — but none of the self-made foodies (bloggers and social media influencers).”

Frebel especially values the fact that the system is transparent. “As a chef, I like that there are no secrets,” he explains. “We know who is a judge and who is coming to eat with us, and everything is on the level. I think its very, very exciting.”

Along with the other chefs whose restaurants are shortlisted, Frebel will be in Paris for the awards ceremony on Feb. 18. Whether or not they come back with prizes hardly matters. The point is that The World Restaurant Awards will have put them all firmly on the gastronomic map.

Robbie Swinnerton’s column, Tokyo Food File, has run in The Japan Times for 20 years. He is a member of the judging panel for The World Restaurant Awards.

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