Although many bars and restaurants in Japan remain open, medical professionals strongly recommend people refrain from congregating in small, crowded spaces to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For more information, visit bit.ly/whocovid19-jp.
“An iza-what?!” says a friend visiting Tokyo, ready to eat his way through the city. This bewilderment reflects a general trend of just how under-appreciated izakaya are internationally. Perhaps best-described as Japanese pubs with tapas-style sharing plates, they are integral to the dining scene in Japan, suiting all occasions from business dinners to casual get-togethers and dates. But the focus on their evening opening hours and drinks belies the fact that these establishments showcase some of the country’s best and most creative cuisine.
Here are a few of our izakaya all-stars, selected for their ability to fill your belly, fit your budget and maybe get you a bit tipsy (we’re not judging).
It’s rare to find an izakaya where every dish hits the spot, but Totogen is a strong contender. Its name contains two repetitions of the Chinese character for “fish,” and it proudly presents its seasonal seafood offerings with a large emphasis on the sashimi of the day.
There are several styles of cooking on offer, from grilled or simmered fish to various kinds of tempura. Try the shiso-umeboshi (perilla leaf and pickled plum) fish tempura if it’s available — the sourness of the plum cuts wonderfully through the heavier batter. The seafood avocado salad is another classic that should not be missed. Highlights also include asparagus served with a miso dressing so delicious it could be licked off the spoon, scallops in soy sauce butter and breaded, deep-fried pork cutlets with mustard.
Taizando Bldg. B1F, Shimomeguro 1-2-21, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 153-0064; 03-3490-7888; totogen-meguro.owst.jp; a la carte ~¥3,000-¥4,000/head. Other locations in Shinsen and Jiyugaoka.
Some visitors come to Tokyo on some kind of cyberpunk quest, “Blade Runner” lenses firmly engaged. They are inevitably disappointed to discover that the entire city is not drenched in neon and, more puzzling, many places have wrapped up food service by a tame 10 p.m.
Honda Azabujuban, however, describes itself as a place for those who want to eat a proper meal late at night and, true to its word, its last order is at 3 a.m. on weekdays.
A narrow room tucked away on the second floor of a nondescript building, it fulfills the description of kakurega or “hideaway” in Japanese. It’s well-worth seeking out: Its specialty is squid rice — a whole squid, deep-fried and served on top of rice cooked in a clay pot.
Any leftovers can be taken home in rice ball form, so you may end up with breakfast too. Other star dishes included tender slices of duck grilled over charcoal and homemade shūmai (Chinese steamed dumplings).
DKNS Azabu 2F-2, Azabu Juban 2-8-3, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0045; 03-6435-4271; azabujuban-honda.com; a la carte ~¥8,000-¥9,000/head
Shinjuku Stand Moto
Sake aficionados will wax lyrical about Gem by Moto, a bar in Ebisu, but it has a few sister stores that should not be overlooked. On your hit list should be Shinjuku Stand Moto, which occupies a dimly lit basement with standing room around a counter for about 10 people to amiably crowd around.
Opening at 3 p.m. on weekdays, the bar is proof it’s never too early for sake, which can be chosen in one of three ways: peeking in the glass refrigerator in the corner, consulting with the staff or chatting to your neighbor for some tips.
The bar staff will happily line up a tasting set for you and, if you want to get really geeky, you can even experiment by trying the same sake made with three different kinds of rice.
The food menu is limited but excellent, with several otsumami (small dishes to have with alcohol), a meat or fish dish or two, and curry on weekends.
Hakuho Bldg. B1F, Shinjuku 5-17-11, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160-0022; 03-6457-3288; twitter.com/shinjukumoto; a la carte ~¥3,000-¥4,000/head
This izakaya — part of a large chain that runs 26 En dining bars in Japan — provides a heavenly solution for the food snob’s worst nightmare: attempting to go out with a large group and sacrificing quality in order to fit everybody in. At En, this compromise is moot — the mammoth restaurant, just one minute from Shibuya crossing, can seat more people than you could probably invite and has an extremely affordable, crowd-pleasing menu, including a fairly extensive and well-described sake list.
While seated at horigotatsu (low tables with recessed floors) and admiring the small rooftop garden out the window, tuck into the incredible otōshi (a small dish served with alcohol and included in the table charge) — a kind of homemade tofu, actually made from soy milk, milk, fresh cream, warabi-ko (bracken starch) and kuzu-ko (kudzu starch). Then, explore the menu by ordering some favorites, such as green peppers stuffed with pork, tsukune (chicken meatballs) with onsen tamago (soft-cooked egg) and the avocado-tuna salad.
Shibuya Toei Plaza 11F, Shibuya 1-24-12, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0002; 050-3467-8009; bit.ly/en-shibuya; a la carte ~¥4,000-¥5,000/head
In the heart of Kagurazaka, Nakizakana’s brightly lit interior and wooden decor perfectly balances stylish with casual, and makes you feel welcome from the moment you step through the door.
The store is all about high-quality seafood, served alongside sake from around Japan. It buys fish from fishermen who use shinkei-jime — a method of killing and paralyzing the fish to preserve its freshness. The otōshi — an exquisite piece of sushi — will be enough to make you sit up straight and perhaps lure you into ordering the omakase nigiri (chef’s choice sushi) set.
The sashimi is also a showstopper: It arrives in a two-tiered box with the instruction to lightly grill the bottom layer yourself. It’s not the only hands-on dish — the grilled pork comes with grate-your-own wasabi. The attention to detail is impressive, and every dish deserves a quiet moment of contemplation.
Otori Bldg. B1F, Kagurazaka 5-35, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162-0825; 050-5816-8458; bit.ly/nakizakana-jp; a la carte ~¥5,000-¥6,000/head
Given the scale of Tokyo, it is impossible to limit the list of top izakaya to just five, so here are a few more shout-outs.
Describe your sake preferences and have your sake chosen for you at Sakeria Sakebozu (the name literally means “Sake Monks”). There are also excellent lamb dishes (including lamb carpaccio) — a rarity in Tokyo.
Uokin is a great bet for a fish-focused izakaya chain renowned for its fresh sashimi. If it’s on the menu, order the soft and tempting aburi (partially grilled) salmon.
35 Steps Bistro in Shibuya is eternally popular with groups and wins on atmosphere and affordability. Its nikujaga (meat and potato stew) with an onsen tamago and garlic toast, or the aburi-shimesaba (flame-grilled cured mackerel), are favorites.
Yasai Kushimaki Vegeta presents an eye-popping tray of pork-wrapped veggies. Bacon asparagus? Eggplant dipped in miso? Or even avocado cheese? Good luck choosing.
Vegetarians and vegans won’t miss out on the fun either at Sorano, a tofu specialist with several locations around Tokyo where you can have a luxurious, silky variety made to order at your table.
Lastly, for a bit of fun, head to Yoshuku no Teppen Otokodojo in Shibuya, literally, the “Boys’ Martial Arts Training Hall.” The staff will greet you loudly, serving up izakaya classics and plenty of meat.