Just as Tokyo with its soaring skyscrapers and thrumming sprawl represents modern Japan, Kyoto is a peek into the country’s past. Kyoto was the capital city from 794 to 1869, and evidence abounds of its thousand-plus years at the center of Japanese culture—from the hundreds of Shinto shrines to the still-functioning Minamiza Kabuki Theatre and Geisha tea houses to the beautifully landscaped grounds of the Imperial Palace.
Food is crucial to Japanese culture and here, too, Kyoto continues to shine—the city boasts over 100 Michelin-starred restaurants. Best of all, the insanely high caliber of cooking takes many forms and price points. The best way to take advantage of Kyoto’s food scene is to sample this variety. A day out might include breakfast at one of the inexpensive food stalls scattered throughout the bustling Nishiki Market, a vegan lunch served at a Buddhist temple, a bowl of thick, Kyoto-style ramen or an elaborate, multi-course kaiseki dinner.
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Downtown Kyoto is about as picturesque as they come, especially Kiyamachi Street, a kilometer-long pedestrian road that runs alongside the Takasegawa Canal. The softly gurgling stream is punctuated by short bridges and lined with machiya, Japan’s traditional long, low wooden townhouses. The charm of this area isn’t lost on tourists, or the restaurants which serve them, so it can be difficult to find a good meal while also enjoying the beautiful view. Luckily there is Menbou Miyoshi, which has been serving homemade udon noodles since 1926. The simpler soups are best, so take a seat by the window and order a bowl of kitsune udon. Chewy, slippery noodles arrive floating in large bowl a savory broth, accented by a few ribbons of sweet fried tofu skin and slices of scallion. 195 Shimokorikichō, Nakagyō-ku
Sushi Gion Matsudaya
It makes sense that Sushi Gion Matsudaya is located in the Gion district, traditional home of the geishas, because watching chef Kazunori Matsuda prepare the omakase at his one-star Michelin restaurant is a piece of dinner theater. Chef Matsuda trained in Tokyo and he prepares his sushi in the Edo-style; each of the thirteen pieces of nigiri gets its own special treatment, whether it’s cut and served raw, lightly broiled, or given a careful swipe of soy sauce, which the chef paints on with a brush. Matsuda’s attention to detail is exemplified by the final course, egg omelet nigiri. So often an afterthought, his is an ethereally light, almost cake-light bite with just a hint of eggy sweetness that comes from a signature mix of sugar, mirin, soy sauce, and tilefish paste. 570-123 Gionmachi Minamigawa, Higashiyama-ku
Although most restaurants in Kyoto serve straight Japanese cuisine, international influences are becoming more visible. Take Bar Agiyao: Tucked away on a quiet side street at the southern edge of Kyoto’s downtown, this tiny restaurant (eight counter seats and three tables) takes superfresh Japanese seafood and serves it in the style of Spanish-style tapas.
A large chalkboard near the entrance lists the day’s catch. This seafood becomes the star of each smart and focused tapa, dishes like delicate firefly squid cooked and served in a bubbling crock of olive oil with a side of crusty bread or a plate of gem-colored tuna sashimi set over a vibrant purée of green peas and shiso. While the price per plate can be on the higher end, the five course omakase (5,000 yen or about $45 per person,) is a steal for the quantity and quality of food. The wine list, which focuses on France, is also solid. 592-3 Fukakusacho Higashinotoin-dori 5 Jo-agaru, Shimogyō-ku
Baitarusain (a.k.a. Vital Signs)
Vegetables star at this relaxed, wood-paneled wine bar near Kawaramachi Station. The menu includes up to twenty varieties of produce, all sourced from Sangoro Farm, a pesticide-free farm in Shizuichi. The night’s vegetable dishes can be ordered as a set meal that includes soup and salad, but the French-influenced a la carte menu is not to be missed. The pastas, like a silky, briny take on linguine alle vongole, are excellent, as are the house-made charcuterie. The owner created the wine list, which features a wide selection of biodynamic bottlings. 235, Sendocho, Shimogyō-ku
Sushi in Kyoto tends toward extremes: expensive omakase from Michelin-starred restaurants and cheap-but-tasty convenience store onigiri. The middle ground—a relaxed, delicious meal at a reasonable price point—is harder to find but not impossible, as evidenced by Honke Jubei. A reservation is recommended at this counter-only sushi restaurant in the Gion district, but an enormous bank account is not. The menu includes both the familiar Edo-style sushi and Kyoto-style sushi, in which seaweed-wrapped rice is filled with cooked or cured fish. The house special is isomaki, a piece of Kyoto-style sushi made with vinegar-marinated mackerel. 310-6 Uradeyama-cho, Nishikikoji-dori Muromachi-higashi-iru, Nakagyō-ku
The interior of this café looks like it hasn’t been updated since it opened in 1976, but that doesn’t seem to bother the locals who linger there each morning over coffee and newspapers. Breakfast means choosing one of the well-priced set menus. All sets come with a cup of the strong, freshly brewed coffee, and most sets feature toast, a word that doesn’t do justice to the magnificent slice of white bread slathered with jam, butter, or cinnamon. I’d argue there’s no choice but to order the cinnamon: the thick, fluffy white bread is lightly toasted then doused with butter and a sweet, crunchy layer of cinnamon sugar. Alongside the toast, choose scrambled or hardboiled eggs and the small, snappy breakfast sausages. Honeya-cho, Takatsuji-dori Muromachi-higashi-iru, Shimogyō-ku
It’s easy to get lost when trying to navigate the world of sake. There are over 1,500 sake breweries in Japan and countless more sakes, each one’s taste affected by variables like what water is used, how much of the grain of rice is polished off, and whether the sake is filtered.
That’s where Ichi Sake comes in. This bar is run by a sake master; tell your waitress your flavor preference (Dry? Floral? Mineral? Sweet?) and the master will choose a sake for you to taste. Ichi Sake is ideal for beginners and sake aficionados alike; it’s unpretentious and affordable, meaning you can taste your way through a range of sakes. There’s a small but tasty menu of snacks like silken tofu in ponzu sauce topped with tiny fish and tuna tartar served with sheets of toasted nori. 373-1, Kamiya-cho, Nakagyō-ku
Kyoto Tiger Gyoza
After a night of barhopping around Kiyamachi-dori, head to Tiger Gyoza to soak up the alcohol. The dumpling menu includes a list of fried, steamed, and boiled options, though most people go for the Banana Gyoza, which are named for their extra large and curved shape. An order these lightly grilled, pork-filled behemoths is easily split between two, even after drinks. 579-7-5 Nakanocho (Shinkyogokudori), Nakagyō-ku