Toronto's Izakaya scene is bustling. Here, a guide to the best spots in town and what you should be sampling there. Sake pairings included.

By Nancy Matsumoto
Updated May 24, 2017
Credit: © Luke Truman

Relocating to Toronto after a 15-year absence has been like meeting an old friend who has had huge success in my absence: Since we last met, it has grown richer and more flashy, while still being refreshingly tolerant, earnest and friendly. When I left Toronto for New York in 2005 there were just a few chefs playing with molecular gastronomy, farm-to-table was barely a thing, and the words “craft” and “cocktail” still hadn’t even gone on a date. When family circumstances brought me back to this city in the fall, I was happy to see how vital and exciting the restaurant scene here had become.

Always culturally diverse, Toronto has become even more so in recent years—and nowhere is the change more evident than in Japanese food and drink.

Many Japanese restaurants in Toronto began as imports from Vancouver, which once owned bragging rights for Canada’s best Asian fare. But no longer. Vancouver-born and -raised Shori Imanishi, chef owner of Imanishi Japanese Kitchen, says of Toronto, "the standard of Japanese cuisine is even higher here than in Vancouver now." One reason for the jump in quality, he explains, is that fish from Tokyo's Tsukiji market is now flown direct to Toronto, without making the once-mandatory stop in Vancouver. The city’s Asia-influenced real estate bubble and stricter liquor license provisions, he adds, have also made it hard for small Vancouver restaurants to get off the ground. Meanwhile, says Imanishi, in addition to being the cultural and financial capital of Canada, Toronto is “an up-and-coming” city where people want to live: “There’s just more going on here culturally, and people catch on to things a lot faster than in Vancouver.”

There's good new for Japanese sake fans, too. Distributors like Shotaro Ozawa have banded together to help educate both the provincial liquor board, which controls all sales, and the public. "Torontonians are eager to adapt and take on new styles of beverages, like sake," Ozawa says, citing the "whirlwind" growth—10 to 15 percent—in Ontario sake sales over the last five years.

Thanks to this confluence of talented chefs and newly available sake varieties, Toronto’s izakaya scene—convivial pubs where drinks and conversation flow, abetted by savory small plates—has exploded, with a restaurant for every taste and budget, from hole-in-the-wall comfort food dives to swanky clubhouses for Russian oligarchs. For fans of the Japanese pub genre, here's a short izakaya-hopping guide with some can't-miss food and sake pairings.

1. Imanishi

Credit: © Luke Truman

At Imanishi, a former Portuguese sports bar re-configured to feel like a cross between a Japanese immigrant's house and a western bar, a set of Shonen Jump manga and '70s-era signage form the backdrop for a tightly edited menu. Standouts include anchovy-spiked potato salad, carpaccio of red snapper with yuzu dressing, and corn kakiage, or tempura-battered and fried corn kernels.

Recommended pairing: The addictively delicous tebasaki, or Nagoya-style chicken wings, lacquered with a peppery sweet soy-sesame sauce and bits of sticky ginger, tastes even better with the well-rounded umami of the Urakasumi Ki Ippon tokubetsu junmai from Miyagi Prefecture. Ours was served chilled but it might be even better slightly warmed.

*Although the stops mentioned in this article all offer a mix of small plates and drinks, they are not all izakaya in the strictest sense of the word; the inclusion of a teishoku set menu (main plus rice and miso soup) at Imanishi, for example, makes it more of a hybrid restaurant form.

1330 Dundas St. West;

2. Ki Modern

ki modern japanese + bar
Credit: © ki Modern Japanese + Bar

Another mixed-format venue, the sleek, high-ceilinged financial district’s Ki Modern Japanese + Bar, harbors a small-plates izakaya menu served in its bar-lounge area that complements its larger-plate dining room menu. One reason to visit is Ki's passionate and knowledgeable sake sommelier Michael Tremblay, who can recommend spot-on sake pairings and tell you a story about each brewery and bottle he's selected for the restaurant.

In less than a decade, he's grown the sake list from 20 bottles to more than 60, and holds Friday sake and shochu nights. You'll get knowledgeable servers at Ki, not always the case in this town's still-evolving sake scene.

Recommended pairing: Try the silky and delicious hamachi sashimi spiked with jalapeno, ginger and yuzu soy sauce with a fruit-forward, melon-scented Wakatake Onikoroshi ("Demonslayer") junmai daiginjo.

181 Bay St;

3. Kingyo

At Kingyo, a warm, inviting izakaya in the Cabbagetown neighborhood of Toronto, superior food is served amid burgundy banquettes and brick walls adorned with glowing pachinko machines and Japanese katana knives. The night we visited, episodes of the classic anime series Doraemon were on permanent loop and the Grateful Dead improvised on the sound system.

Ordering a sake flight from Toronto sake brewer Izumi is a good way to explore the five-year-old brewery's main offerings. Standout menu items at Kingyo include beef tataki salad with ume (plum) dressing, and garlic ahi tuna tataki with garlic chips and ponzu jelly.

Recommended pairing: Try the izakaya classic ebi-mayo, or deep-fried prawns with chili-mayo sauce, and the "Kingyo original sake," a rich, mellow yamahai junmai brewed for the restaurant by Suehiro Brewery from Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.

51B Winchester St.;

4. Zakkushi

Not far away, Zakkushi, the Toronto branch of a Japanese-backed Vancouver chain, serves up yakitori, or skewered, expertly charcoal-grilled morsels of chicken, beef and pork, accompanied by a sake menu of 10 labels plus seasonal specials. Rustic wooden booths, ranma (carved wooden transoms) and the hearty, welcoming "irrashae!" of servers approximate the feel of a cozy mountain izakaya. Guests slurp oden, a hearty winter stew featuring daikon boiled eggs and fish cake, and order platters of sashimi and skewers. Manager Kazunori Eguchi says he likes to keep several isshobin, or large-format 1.8-liter bottles, on the menu for groups to keep the tab affordable.

Recommended pairing: Mix a platter of skewers—free-range momo (thigh), mé maki (garlic scapes wrapped in pork), and bacon-asparagus are a good start—and wash it down with an earthy, dry Otokoyama tokubetsu junmai, an excellent match for grilled meats.

193 Carlton St.;

5. Kasa Moto

Kasa Moto
Credit: © Steven Lee

If your tastes skew higher end, check out Kasa Moto, the tri-level, 410 seat non-traditional Japanese restaurant in the heart of luxury brand-studded Yorkville. There, let head sommelier and sake convert Patrick Marois skillfully guide you through a well-curated premium sake list, and graze from chef Michael Parubocki's eclectic menu, including his excellent buttery torched A5 wagyu nigiri (made with beef from a small farmer in Miyazaki Prefecture), sweet and sour cauliflower, and crowd favorite rock shrimp tempura.

Recommended pairing: Any of the steaks—ranging from four ounces of Japanese wagyu cooked on a hot stone to a 28-ounce Canadian dry-aged, bone-in ribeye—would be a happy match with a rich Kozaemon tokubetsu junmai. Slightly warmed, its umami punch takes on light and smoky undertones that sends grilled dishes to the next level.

115 Yorkville Ave.;

Kasa Moto
Credit: © Steven Lee

6. DonDon Izakaya

The 140-seat DonDon Izakaya is just the kind of raucous, convivial izakaya you might look for after a hard day throwing people around on the trading floor or judo mat. With its two wooden bars and long communal tables, it's an idealized college dining hall-with-a-Japanese pub vibe, complete with taiko drummers who announce each new party. The food and sake menus are both voluminous. Manager Kohei Baba and his servers will ask how you like your alcohol: dry, sweet, floral or earthy, then make recommendations based on that.

Recommended Pairing: Try the smoky hay sashimi with Hakkaisan junmai ginjo. Your choice of fish is seared over burning hay, imparting a smoky flavor that complements the classic Niigata-style Hakkaisan, crisp and clear with a gentle dry finish. Baba recommends the sashimi sans soy sauce and instead bundled with the accompanying condiments of shredded onion, thinly sliced garlic and sea salt

130 Dundas St W.;

7. Hanmoto

In the Toronto izakaya universe, the polar opposite of sleek, moneyed Kasa Moto would be Hanmoto, a semi-hidden izakaya with a dark and DIY, tiki-ish bar setting. Hanmoto's brief, hand-drawn and Xeroxed menu is divided into three categories, "Raw," "Hot!" and one dessert, miso ice cream. The four-label sake list is equally minimalist, though well-matched to the inexpensive, umami-bomb leanings of the food. The katsu bun consists of a deep-fried Jamaican coco bun (a nod to shops the owners grew up with in Toronto) stuffed with a 24-hour sous vide pork belly, lettuce and soy remoulade. The luscious and creamy nasu dengaku is a single Japanese eggplant, deep-fried and topped with miso hollandaise and deep-fried beet threads.

Recommended Pairing: The Uni Bomb—steamed rice topped with sea urchin roe, salmon roe, crispy chicken skin and Japanese puffed rice arare, adorned with a headdres of nori—and the rich, rice-forward Nishinoseki Daruma Cup tokubetsu junmai make an excellent match.

2 Lakeview Ave.