Once the watering holes of choice for salarymen looking to drown their sorrows after a long day at the office, izakaya (informal Japanese pubs) have evolved into the quintessential casual Japanese dining experience.
From family-friendly chains to uber-designed modern versions, the best izakaya in Tokyo offer something for all tastes and are far more representative of “real” Japanese food than the high-end kaiseki joints that cost a fortune.
Just about every Tokyo residents will have his or her own favorite izakaya, and it will often be a very local place with its own band of devout regulars. But when you travel here, choosing one from the thousands of destinations across the city can be a monumental task.
Here’s our selection of the best izakaya in Tokyo, where you’re sure of a warm welcome to go with great food and drink – all without breaking the bank:
Sit outside on Warayakiya’s deck or inside at the counter for a view of your food being seared over burning straw. Located on the less-seedy side of Roppongi, Warayakiya is easily recognizable by the groups of young, stylish professionals perched on the open-air wooden ledge facing the street.
This is a great way to enjoy both the delicious food and the people watching, but if it’s your first visit, try to get a seat from which you can see the chefs at one of the best izakaya in Tokyo at work.
Warayakiya specializes in a method of cooking that hails from Kochi Prefecture in Shikoku. Rather than grilling meats and fish over charcoal the cooks use straw, which burns at temperatures of up 900 C.
Because of these high temperatures, the food needs only to be on the grill for mere moments before it is perfectly and evenly seared. The piece de resistance on the menu is the seared bonito, and it should not be missed. The fish is so tender and full of flavor imbued from the grilling process that it shines in its simplicity.
A full menu of grilled meats and vegetables is also available. Reservations are recommended on weekends.
Warayakiya, 6-8-8 Roppongi, Minato-ku.
You may end up sitting on a beer crate, but the food at Uoshin makes it worth the hardship. For fish and seafood lovers, perhaps the best izakaya in Tokyo are those in the Uoshin group.
Several branches are dotted throughout the city in high-traffic areas like Shibuya, Shimokitazawa and Ebisu, but the Nogizaka location is particularly inviting, with its colorful paper lanterns and open-air seating – clear vinyl curtains are used to keep the heat in during winter.
Located at the corner of Nogizaka crossing just a stone’s throw from Tokyo Midtown and the business districts of Akasaka, Aoyama Itchome and Roppongi, Uoshin is a popular meeting place for office workers before heading home for the evening.
And while the staff is usually happy to squeeze in a few stragglers on beer crates or wooden stools, larger groups would be well advised to reserve a table in advance.
Uoshin’s menu is basically made up of various types of fish and seafood, cooked (or not) in various ways. Grilled fish, sashimi, fish eggs, crustaceans of all stripes … the specialty here is the bounty of the sea. Everything is done well, and prices are reasonable.
Uoshin, 9-6-32 Akasaka, Minato-ku
Rumored to have inspired the restaurant scene in the film “Kill Bill,” this spacious izakaya is a Tokyo institution.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi clearly considered it one of one of the best izakaya in Tokyo, as he entertained George W. Bush here during an official visit to Japan.
Notoriety aside, Gonpachi remains a popular choice for visitors and locals alike. Stepping inside the imposing, Japanese castle-like structure in Nishi Azabu, diners are greeted by a team of friendly, upbeat staff.
The restaurant’s open layout includes two levels of tables situated around a central workspace, in front of which there is also extensive counter seating.
The whole place is decorated in a warm, rustic style, with lots of heavy wooden furniture.
Gonpachi’s menu includes everything you would expect from a traditional izakaya, with charcoal-grilled skewers and soba dishes taking center stage. A few Western and fusion dishes, such as sirloin steak, spicy chicken wings and avocado and Camembert cheese tempura, round out the menu. The best tables go fast and there’s often a wait, so reservations are recommended.
Gonpachi, 1-13-11 Nishi Azabu, Minato-ku
Andy’s Shin Hinomoto
Old-school Japanese pub grub all the way – apart from the British owner, that is.
Like Gonpachi, Andy’s Shin Hinomoto is one of those places that people say you must visit while in Tokyo. It continues to remain hugely popular with locals, whatever their nationality, in spite of being dangerously overexposed in just about every guidebook.
Shin Hinomoto is a noisy, boisterous izakaya squeezed under the JR tracks by Yurakucho Station. A family business for more than 60 years, the current owner is a Brit, Andy Lunt, who has been working at the restaurant and buying fish from Tsukiji market for the past quarter century.
His experience and persistence have paid off, making him likely the most universally known and respected non-Japanese izakaya proprietor in Tokyo.
Andy’s specialty at one of the best izakaya in Tokyo is reasonably priced grilled seafood and vegetables, from sea bream and John Dory to buttery scallops and tender prawns to huge asparagus and eringi mushrooms.
Because he buys his ingredients fresh from the market, not everything is available year-round and the menu changes slightly from time to time. Shin Hinomoto is the perfect venue for a casual gathering or party, but reservations are essential for groups, especially during peak times.
Shin Hinomoto, Yurakucho 2-4-4, Chiyoda-ku
While it is not uncommon to choose an izakaya based on the food selection, it is also understood that for most people, the experience will involve alcohol. No, really.
This is where the Takewaka and Buri chains of izakaya come in. With a large selection of sake on offer, these restaurants cater as much to novices as they do to connoisseurs, marking them out as some of the best izakaya in Tokyo.
Buri has a few locations in Tokyo, including a standing bar in Ebisu, but the Akasaka branch of sister restaurant Takewaka is more upscale and offers a better sake selection with more than 30 varieties from which to choose.
The popular tasting sets allow diners to compare different types of sake – a great way for newbies to get initiated to Japan’s beloved brew.
The service at Takewaka is friendly and the food is solid, traditional izakaya fare. Sit at the counter to watch the chefs work and if you’re lucky, you may even get some free sake pairing advice.
Takewaka, 3-13-12 Akasaka, Minato-ku
Chow down and drink up – Ogikubo Ichibe’s friendly staff will happily talk you through their huge sake collection. Ogikubo Ichibe is an old-style izakaya where you settle down on a little cushion on the tatami floor, where the walls are covered by calligraphied sake menus and nihonshu labels and the staff feel like a family, according to Tokyofoodcast.com writer Etsuko Nakamura.
“That is what makes this place so special and keeps their regulars coming back,” she says.
Ogikubo Ichibe is not the kind of place you take your new in-laws to if you’re trying to impress. But if you’re looking for a simple, comfortable izakaya, plus one of the largest sake selections in town, squeeze in, settle down and enjoy.
Ogikubo Ichibe, 3/F, Daiichi Ogawara Bldg, 1-13-3 Kamiogi, Suginami-ku
The young and the fun-loving can find a home at Tenmamichi Shimokitazawa.
Casual can come sloppy or casual can come comfy, and this izakaya is definitely the latter. It’s like an old sweater that over time has softened and loosened, but become so snug you want to live in it forever.
A few minutes from Shimokitazawa station, full of a young crowd looking for a fun night out, Tenmamichi offers an extensive menu of good, reasonably priced meals.
“Don’t hesitate to ask the staff for their recommendations. They are not shy about sharing their personal preferences,” says Nakamura. “I’d suggest starting with small dishes with beer or nihonshu, then move to oden or kushi age.”
Tenmamichi Shimokitazawa, B1, City Hotel Lefa, 2-20-2 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku
In a quiet alley between Shibuya and Ebisu, a tiny light guides you to a solid wooden door on the second floor. Inside are long wooden counters, a spare open kitchen and a polished concrete wall.
The effect is an intimate, private setting, comfortable but classy, combining elements of contemporary and classic Japanese design. The food and drink menu continues the mix-and-contrast theme, but does so in a way that intrigues and surprises rather than obscures.
“All dishes are carefully yet simply presented on heavy earthenwear,” says Tokyofoodcast.com writer Etsuko Nakamura. “Try the chef’s recommendation: menchi katsu, juicy, deep fried breaded ground beef and pork.”
Choices include thinly sliced kabu radish with ume plum sauce, or chinmi in season. The sashimi selection is excellent and grilled fish or meat is seasoned perfectly with fresh, zingy flavors.
“Namikibashi Nakamura is a step up from the usual izakaya; everyone leaves happy and content,” says Nakamura. “They offer smoke-free dining throughout – even the yakitori grill here is somehow smokeless.”
When you “Kanpai!” at Namikibashi Nakamura, do so with champagne or beer. It’s a bubbly kind of place. Follow with a bottle of sake served in an artistic katakuchi.
Namikibashi Nakamura, 2/F-B, IPSE Shibuya, 3-13-5 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2012. It was reformatted and republished in 2017.