F&W spotlights some of Tokyo’s best restaurants, from modernist kaiseki destinations like Nihonryori Ryugin to traditional ramen joints such as Hototogisu. Plus: a spectacular sushi experience, an exquisite salon for tea and sweets and a bar where super precise cocktails are presented like works of art. » F&W’s Full Tokyo Travel Guide
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Sake rules at this tiny izakaya (tavern), which has a collection of 24 different bottles, including those from prized producers in the Shizuoka prefecture. Chef-owner Kotaro Yamamoto also offers a selection of unusual seasonal sashimi such as kue (longtooth grouper) and tairagai (penshell clam), often-changing snacks like shrimp and mushroom tempura cakes; and, popular year-round, a Japanese-style potato salad topped with a smoked soft-boiled egg.
Hidden on the second floor of an anonymous office building, this stylish restaurant is a tasteful, wonderful spot to sample modern izakaya food. Roughly half the 55 seats are around the counter, which is the best place to sit and watch Teiji Nakamura and his chefs prepare top-quality sashimi, charcoal-grilled dishes like sansho pepper-spiced sea eel and seasonal items like tempura of fukinoto (butterbur flower buds) wrapped in slices of pork. ameblo.jp/fg-nakamura
Located among the fashion boutiques inside the Tadao Ando-designed Omotesando Hills mall, this restaurant is a new breed in Tokyo that focuses on vegetables from nearby farms—though it’s not strictly vegetarian. The produce is cooked in traditional Japanese ways (tempura, soups, etc.) and in Western dishes, like the signature creamy bagna cauda, a hot garlicky dip served with beautifully arranged raw vegetables cooling on ice. Curry rice, a ubiquitous working class dish all over Tokyo, gets a smart, healthy upgrade: Rice and many other grains are topped with an array of lightly fried seasonal vegetables, such as bitter melon and bok choy; the light-brown curry sauce is served in a gravy boat on the side. eat-walk.com/yasaiyamei
Chef Tooru Okuda made his name with the popular Ginza Kojyu, where he earned three Michelin stars in 2009 for his elegant kaiseki, the traditional Japanese multicourse tasting menus. In 2011 he branched out to open his second Tokyo restaurant, Ginza Okuda, just a few blocks away, also serving exquisitely prepared seasonal courses of sashimi and hassun (small side dishes). Okuda is behind the counter at Ginza Okuda every day at lunch before he heads to Kojyu to prepare dinner.ginzaokuda.com
Photo © Kappou Kisaku.
Chef Yoshiaki Mori trained at some of the country’s best restaurants, including Roan Kikunoi in Kyoto and Nihonbashi Yukari in Tokyo. Now he’s opened his own restaurant, where he can be found behind the seven-seat counter preparing kappo, a more casual but still ceremonious relative of kaiseki, including donabe (clay pot) rice dishes with toppings like grilled sanma (the sardine like Pacific saury).kisaku-kappou.com
Considered to be one of the best tempura chefs in the city, Tetsuya Saotome worked for for over 30 years at Mikawa in Kayabacho before opening Mikawa Zezankyo in the Fukuzumi neighborhood. Many of the specialties revolve around exceptional seafood harvested from Tokyo Bay, including sublime, rich anago (conger eel), kisu (Japanese whiting) and scallops served in a dashi broth with salt-pickled vegetables.mikawa-zezankyo.jimdo.com
Chef-owner Seiji Yamamoto has ingeniously merged the sacrosanct traditions of kaiseki with futuristic modernist cooking techniques to international acclaim. “He is a marvelous guy,” says Spanish avant-garde star chef Ferran Adrià, “one of the most important chefs in Japan.” In a small and modest whitewashed room, diners choose from a 50-plate a la cart menu or between three set menus with dishes like charbroiled wild eel and white or red miso soup.nihonryori-ryugin.com
This intimate spot hidden down a narrow alleyway combines multicourse kaiseki cuisine like tuna prepared tataki-style (gently roasted over smoldering straw so the outside is cooked and the center is rare) with exquisite handmade soba noodles. Diners sitting around the eight-seat counter can watch every step of the noodle-making craftsmanship, from the hand-grinding of the buckwheat to the slicing of the fine strands.
Chef Harutaka Takahashi may have a Michelin-starred résumé, but he isn’t showy. Instead he focuses on finding the most extraordinary, often-obscure seafood available down the street at the Tsukiji Market—shako, a prehistoric-looking mantis shrimp with a slightly earthy taste; sweet, reddish aka uni; and kohada, a briny silver fish—which he serves either as sashimi or as sushi on warm, loosely packed rice spiked with artisanal vinegar.
Japanese wagyu beef, prized for its melt-in-the mouth marbling, is dry-aged for at least 40 days and showcased behind glass at this restaurant devoted to teppanyaki (meats and vegetables sizzled by chefs on a tableside griddle). Yasuo Miyachi worked as a teppanyaki chef at the Rihga Royal Hotel for years before opening this restaurant in the Ginza neighborhood, where diners sit along a dark wooden counter outfitted with large steel plates for the cooking.
The path to Tofuya Ukai, inside an old sake factory that was shipped from the Yamagata prefecture and rebuilt here, is along a wooden bridge that goes over a koi pond and passes through a tranquil garden. Once inside, kimono-clad waitresses usher diners into private rooms for classic kaiseki courses, like seasonal sashimi, seared wagyu and—the restaurant’s highlight—freshly made tofu, which arrives in various forms, including simmered in a hot pot of creamy soy milk. ukai.co.jp/english/shiba
Yakitori stalls (“yaki” means “to grill”; “tori” is chicken) tend to be smoky dives under train tracks. But Bird Land, in the Ginza district—home to Gucci, Chanel and Prada flagships—has elevated the genre. Guests sip wine from Riedel glasses around a U-shaped bar, jazz plays on the sound system and cooks skewer and grill various cuts of chicken and innards over binchotan, a kind of smokeless charcoal. Bird Land excels at more than just yakitori: The chicken liver pâté and custard pudding are fantastic.ginza-birdland.sakura.ne.jp
Open since 1994 and adjacent to the New York Bar immortalized in 2003’s Lost in Translation, this glass-enclosed steak house atop the Park Hyatt Tokyo is a must-visit. The location and setting—a dark, dramatically lit room with 360-degree views of the Tokyo cityscape from 52 stories up—are worth the trip alone (along with the live jazz), but the New York Grill also has an impressive range of Australian, American and Japanese beef (including authentic wagyu) and a 1,600-bottle wine cellar that focuses on cult Napa wines. tokyo.park.hyatt.com
This fifth-generation unagi shop sources some of the highest-quality eel in Japan. Set menus vary in price according to the grade of eel, which is served steamed, grilled, dipped in sweet soy-based sauce and accompanied by rice and pickles. The first-floor dining room of the old wooden house tends to be jammed, but there are rooms for small groups upstairs. nodaiwa.com
Tokyo’s landmark specialty fruit shop now operates 14 stores, but the two-story flagship is still the most impressive. The first floor sells beautifully packaged fruit gift boxes along with the infamously pricey muskmelons (individually shaped into blemish-free spheres), while the second floor houses a high-ceilinged café that serves slices of perfectly ripened fruit along with ornate fruit parfaits.sembikiya.co.jp
This typical small ramen shop has fantastically rich broth and some very unusual variations, such as a shoyu (soy sauce-based) broth made with clams and topped with caramelized onions. Daily specials are always interesting, such as the niboshi, chewy noodles in a flavorful sardine-pork broth.
Kagurazaka Tonkatsu Honke Agezuki
Once renowned for its geisha houses, the Kagurazaka neighborhood (near Iidabashi Station) is now called “Petit France” for its many brasseries, bistros and wine bars. It’s also home to this decidedly un-Gallic restaurant, which feels like an old Japanese inn, with its dark wooden columns and ceiling. Chef Tsuyoshi Hoshina prepares some of Tokyo’s best tonkatsu (fried breaded pork cutlets), which are remarkably juicy inside their crispy panko shell. His secret: a special blend of lard, canola and olive oil and two different frying temperatures.
Native New Yorker Ivan Orkin faced skeptics when he opened a 10-seat ramen counter in the Setagaya neighborhood in 2007. Now ramen connoisseurs make pilgrimages there to eat classic shio (salt-based) and shoyu (soy sauce-based) bowls prepared with house-made noodles and topped with luxurious slabs of roast pork. At Orkin’s second outpost, Ivan Ramen Plus, the focus is on boundary-pushing creations like ramen served in a broth prepared with dried whole flying fish, scallops and shrimp, and a version with four cheeses called Mazemen. ivanramen.com
Bakeries and Coffee Bars
Shinichiro Ogata is both designer and restaurateur: His exquisite bowls are on the tables at Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée in Paris, and he also runs this modern-day sweets salon, located in the same building as renowned cosmetics emporium Pola. Shoppers come for tea and a choice of exquisite wagashiya (Japan’s traditional confections), which include both classic and modern creations like green tea-flavored blancmange (a soft cooked pudding).higashiya.com
Above a nondescript ramen shop in the Omotesando district sits this beloved, dark, wood-paneled coffee house, where baristas have been meticulously hand-roasting and brewing beans since 1975. Steamed milk for the signature “milk coffee” (café au lait) is served ceremoniously, as the baristas pour the steamed milk into wide ceramic bowls from a great height—without splashing.
Head bartender Shinobu Ishigaki mans this narrow bar, making both classic cocktails and molecular-style drinks with fine-tuned precision. His signature Claudia cocktail (named for Italian actress Claudia Cardinale) calls for a mix of rum, vermouth, pineapple juice and caramel syrup, and comes impeccably garnished with a maraschino cherry, a pineapple leaf, a star-shaped radish slice and a curl of lime peel around the cocktail glass’s delicate stem.ishinohana.com