From stand-up noodle shops and pizzerias to sushi bars and exclusive kaiseki restaurants serving elaborate multicourse meals, restaurants in Tokyo number at least 80,000 -- which gives you some idea of how fond the Japanese are of eating out. In a city where apartments are so small and cramped that entertaining at home is almost unheard of, restaurants serve as places for socializing, meeting friends, and wooing business associates -- as well as great excuses for drinking a lot of beer, sake, wine, and whiskey.
The biggest problem facing the hungry foreigner in Tokyo is ordering a meal in a restaurant without an English-language menu. I've tried to alleviate this problem somewhat by giving sample dishes and prices for recommended restaurants. I've also noted which restaurants have English-language menus.
One aid to simplified ordering is the common use of plastic-food models in glass display cases either outside or just inside the front door of many restaurants. Sushi, tempura, daily specials, spaghetti -- they're all there in mouthwatering plastic replicas, along with the corresponding prices. Decide what you want and point it out to your waiter.
Unfortunately, not all restaurants in Japan have plastic display cases, especially the more exclusive or traditional ones. In fact, you'll miss a lot of Tokyo's best cuisine if you restrict yourself to eating only at those with displays. If there's no display from which to choose, look at the menu to see whether there are pictures of the available dishes, or look at what people around you are eating and order what looks best. An alternative is to order the teishoku, or daily special meal (also called "set course" or simply "course," especially in restaurants serving Western food); these are fixed-price meals that consist of a main dish and several side dishes, often including soup, rice, and Japanese pickles. Although most restaurants have special set courses for dinner as well, lunch is the usual time for the teishoku, generally from 11 or 11:30am to about 2pm.
Once you've decided what you want to eat, flag down a waiter or waitress; waitstaff will not hover around your table waiting for you to order, but come only when you summon them. In any case, in many restaurants there are no assigned servers to certain tables; rather, servers are multitaskers, so don't be shy about stopping anyone who passes by.
Most Japanese restaurants (that is, restaurants serving Japanese food) hang a rod of noren (split curtains) outside their front door to signal they are open for business. Otherwise, restaurants in Tokyo are usually open from about 11am to 10 or 11pm. Of course, some establishments close earlier, while others stay open past midnight; many close for a few hours in the afternoon. Try to avoid the lunchtime rush from noon to 1pm.
Keep in mind that the closing time posted for most restaurants is exactly that -- everyone is expected to pay his or her bill and leave. A general rule of thumb is that the last order is taken at least a half-hour before closing time, sometimes an hour or more for kaiseki restaurants. To be on the safe side, therefore, try to arrive at least an hour before closing time so that you have time to relax and enjoy your meal.
How to Dine in Tokyo Without Spending a Fortune
Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world. During your first few days here, money will seem to flow out of your pockets like water. (Many people become convinced they must have lost it somehow.) Here are some invaluable dining tips on getting the most for your money.
Set Lunches -- I know people in Tokyo who claim they haven't cooked in years -- and they're not millionaires. They simply take advantage of one of the best deals in Tokyo -- the fixed-price lunch, usually available from 11am to 2pm. Called a teishoku in a Japanese restaurant, a fixed-price meal is likely to include soup, perhaps an appetizer like sashimi, a main dish such as tempura or whatever the restaurant specializes in, pickled vegetables, rice, and tea. In restaurants serving Western food, the fixed-price lunch is variously referred to as a set lunch, seto coursu, or simply coursu, and usually includes an appetizer, a main course with one or two side dishes, coffee or tea, and sometimes dessert. Even restaurants listed under very expensive (where you'd otherwise spend at least ¥13,000 or more per person for dinner, excluding drinks) and expensive (where you can expect to pay ¥9,000-¥13,000) usually offer set-lunch menus, allowing you to dine in style at very reasonable prices. To keep costs down, therefore, try having your biggest meal at lunch, avoiding, if possible, the noon-to-1pm weekday crush when Tokyo's army of office workers floods area restaurants. Because the Japanese tend to order fixed-price meals rather than a la carte, set dinners are also usually available (though they're not as cheap as set lunches). All-you-can-eat buffets (called viking in Japanese, probably because Japan's first buffet was in a restaurant called Viking in the Imperial Hotel), offered by many hotel restaurants, are also bargains for big appetites.
So many of Tokyo's good restaurants fall into the moderate category that it's tempting simply to eat your way through the city -- and the range of cuisines is so great you could eat something different at each meal. Dinner in this category will average ¥4,000 to ¥9,000, lunch likely half as much.
Many of Tokyo's most colorful, noisy, and popular restaurants fall into the inexpensive category, where meals usually go for less than ¥4,000; many offer meals for less than ¥2,000 and lunches for ¥1,000 or less. The city's huge working population heads to these places to catch a quick lunch or to socialize with friends after hours. Because I can cover only a limited number of cheap restaurants in each neighborhood, ask your concierge or hotel manager for recommendations; a great, little place may be just around the corner.
Coffee & Breakfast -- Because prices are markedly different here (steeper), a bit of readjustment in thinking and habits is necessary. Coffee, for example, is something of a luxury, and some Japanese are astonished at the thought of drinking four or five cups a day. Traditional coffee shops (as opposed to imports such as Starbucks) offer what's called "morning service" until 10 or 11am; it generally consists of a cup of coffee, a small salad, a boiled egg, and the thickest slice of toast you've ever seen for about ¥650. That's a real bargain when you consider that just one cup of coffee can cost ¥250 to ¥500, depending on where you order it. (With the exception of hotel buffets, it's rare to find a bottomless cup in Japan.) For a coffee break later in the day, look for an inexpensive chain such as Doutour, Excelsior, or Pronto. Starbucks has also conquered Japan, with more than 700 branches throughout the country (and probably a good deal more by the time you read this).
If you like starting the day with a big meal, hotel buffet breakfasts are a good way to go, with the best offering an array of Western and Japanese selections. The cheapest ones, however, aren't very tasty, consisting almost invariably of scrambled eggs, processed ham, lettuce, miso soup, rice, and pickled vegetables. If you're on a strict budget, therefore, you're best off buying fruit, snacks, and juice at the grocery store.
Cheap Eats -- Inexpensive restaurants can be found in department stores (often an entire floor will be devoted to restaurants, most with plastic-food displays), in underground shopping arcades, in nightlife districts, and in and around train and subway stations. Look for yakitori-ya (evening drinking establishments that sell skewered meats and vegetables), noodle and ramen shops, coffee shops (which often offer inexpensive pastries and sandwiches), and conveyor-belt sushi bars, where you reach out and take the plates that interest you. Tokyo also has American fast-food chains, such as McDonald's (where Big Macs cost about ¥320), Wendy's, and KFC, as well as Japanese chains -- Freshness Burger and First Kitchen among them -- that sell hamburgers.
There are also many excellent yet inexpensive French bistros, Italian trattorie, and ethnic restaurants, particularly those serving Indian, Chinese, Thai, and other Asian cuisines. Hotel restaurants are good bargains for inexpensive set lunches and buffets.
Prepared Foods -- You can save even more money by avoiding restaurants altogether. There are all kinds of prepared foods you can buy; some are complete meals, perfect for picnics in the park or right in your hotel room.
Perhaps the best known is the obento, or box lunch, commonly sold in major train stations, in food sections of department stores, and at counter windows of tiny shops throughout Tokyo. Costing usually between ¥800 and ¥1,500, the basic obento contains a piece of meat (generally fish or chicken), various side dishes, rice, and pickled vegetables. Sushi box lunches are also readily available.
My favorite places to shop for prepared foods are department stores. Located in basements, these enormous food and produce sections hearken back to Japanese markets of yore, with vendors yelling out their wares and crowds of housewives deciding on the evening's dinner. Different counters specialize in different items -- tempura, yakitori, eel, Japanese pickles, cooked fish, sushi, salads, vegetables, and desserts. Almost the entire spectrum of Japanese cuisine is available, and numerous samples are available (some travelers have been known to "dine" in department-store basements for free). What I love about buying my dinner in a department store is that I can compose my own meal exactly as I wish -- perhaps some sushi, some mountain vegetables, boiled soybeans, maybe even Chinese food -- in combinations never available in most restaurants. Obento box meals are also available, and some department stores (such as Isetan in Shinjuku) have sit-down counters for meals of tempura and other fare on the perimeter of their food floor. In any case, you can eat for less than ¥1,200, and there's nothing like milling with Japanese housewives to make you feel like one of the locals. Though not as colorful, 24-hour convenience stores also sell packaged foods, including sandwiches and obento, as do local grocery stores such as Peacock and the budget-friendly Lawson 100.
Street-side stalls, called yatai, are also good sources of inexpensive meals. These restaurants-on-wheels sell a variety of foods, including oden (fish cakes), yakitori (skewered barbecued chicken), and yakisoba (fried noodles), as well as sake and beer. A popular sight at festivals, they otherwise appear mostly at night, illuminated by a single lantern or a string of lights, and many have a counter with stools as well, protected in winter by a tarp wall. These can be great places for rubbing elbows with the locals. Sadly, traditional pushcarts are slowly being replaced by motorized vans, which are not nearly as romantic and don't offer seating.
In & Near Ginza
Ten-ichi ★★★ TEMPURA — Founded in 1930, this may well be the most famous tempura restaurant in the world, with many foreign dignitaries among its customers over the years. With branches all over Japan, its main shop is here on Namiki Dori, a street blazing with neon in Ginza's nightlife district. But indoors it's all spartan and spare, decorated with blond wood trim, sliding doors, and flower arrangements. Tempura counters on each floor seat no more than 10 customers, who get an intimate view of master chefs going about their work (reservations are recommended for lunch, required for dinner). Ten-ichi is famous for its delicately fried food, with a batter so refined and an oil so light, the flavor of fish, shrimp, scallop, eggplant, sweet potato, and other ingredients is enhanced rather than overwhelmed. The piping-hot morsels can be dipped into a variety of sauces, from the restaurant's own secret recipe to a simple lemon juice with a pinch of salt. Although it's not on the menu, a ¥4,860 lighter lunch of tempura over rice is also usually available. Ten-ichi branches include those nearby in the Imperial Hotel's Tower basement and the Sony Building, as well as locations in department stores, including Seibu in Ikebukuro, Tokyu in Shibuya, Takashimaya in Nihombashi, and Isetan and Odakyu in Shinjuku.
6–6–5 Ginza. www.tenichi.co.jp. tel. 03/3571-1949. Set lunches ¥4,860–¥14,17,280; set dinners ¥11,880–¥20,520. Daily 11:30am–9pm (last order). Station: Ginza (3 min.). On Namiki Dori.
The Imperial Viking Sal ★★ INTERNATIONAL — All over Japan, the all-you-can-eat buffet is called "Viking" in Japanese, because that's how the Imperial Hotel introduced the concept with the country's very first spread back in 1958, dubbing it a Viking smorgasbord. Today, of course, many hotels offer buffets fit for a true Viking, but this remains one of the most famous and luckily bears no resemblance to what passed for Western food back in the 1950s. In fact, this might well be the priciest buffet in Japan (as with all buffets, prices are discounted for children). More than 40 mostly European dishes make their debut with offerings that change monthly, from roast beef with horseradish to salmon, desserts, and more, with seasonal promotions adding ethnic cuisine from around the world. Live jazz serenades guests some evenings, but if you opt for the more economical lunch, make a reservation and ask for a table overlooking the Ginza or Hibiya Park. Or come for breakfast.
Imperial Hotel, 17th floor, 1–1–1 Uchisaiwai-cho. www.imperialhotel.co.jp. tel. 03/3539-8187. Buffet breakfast ¥3,800; buffet lunch Mon–Fri ¥5,500, Sat–Sun and holidays ¥6,000; buffet dinner Mon–Fri ¥8,200, Sat–Sun and holidays ¥8,700. Daily 7am–9:30am and 11:30am–2:30pm; Mon–Fri 5:30–9:30pm; Sat–Sun and holidays 5–9:30pm (last order). Station: Hibiya (1 min.).
Also worth seeking out is Maru, offering modern interpretations of Japanese food, at 6–12–15 Ginza (tel. 03/5537-7420).
Rangetsu (らん月) ★ SUKIYAKI/SHABU-SHABU/KAISEKI/BENTO — ["]Orchid moon" is the English translation of Rangetsu, a Ginza restaurant founded in 1947 and still under the same family ownership. It specializes in sukiyaki and shabu-shabu, made with A5-grade Japanese Wagyu beef and cooked at your table. The English-language menu with photos lists many other dishes, too, from yaki shabu-shabu cooked on a grill at your table and crab dishes (like the crab shabu-shabu set meal for ¥10,500) to bento, kaiseki, and more. Lunch sets, served until 4pm, are especially good deals, offering steaks, shabu-shabu, bento, and many other combinations. A sake bar in the basement stocks more than 80 varieties from all over Japan, all of which you can also order with your meal no matter which floor you dine on.
3–5–8 Ginza. www.ginza-rangetsu.com. tel. 03/3567-1021. Beef sukiyaki or shabu-shabu set meals from ¥8,000 for dinner, ¥3,500 for lunch; kaiseki ¥6,000–¥12,000; bento ¥2,400–¥3,500; set lunches ¥1,950–¥3,900. Daily 11:30am–10pm. Station: Ginza (3 min.). On Chuo Dori, across from the Matsuya department store.
A Note on Establishments with Japanese Signs
Many establishments and attractions in Japan do not have signs in Roman (English-language) letters. Those that don’t are provided with the Japanese equivalent to help you locate them.
In addition to the following restaurants, check out Meal Muji, 3–8–3 Marunouchi (tel. 03/5208-8241), a cafeteria on the second floor of the popular minimalist Muji clothing and housewares store, where you can load up on mostly salads and veggies daily from 10am to 9pm. A number of restaurants are also located on the eighth floor of Matsuya Ginza department store, serving everything from French and Chinese food to sushi, tempura, noodles, and more. For Chinese dumplings, there’s a Din Tai Fung at 1–8–19 Ginza (tel. 03/5159-4141).
For atmospheric dining, head to an arch beneath the elevated Yamanote railway tracks located about halfway between Harumi Dori and the Imperial Hotel Tower; it has a handful of tiny yakitori stands, each with a few tables and chairs. These cater to a rather boisterous working-class clientele, mainly men. The atmosphere, unsophisticated and dingy, harks back to prewar Japan, somewhat of an anomaly in otherwise chic Ginza. Stalls are open from about 5pm to midnight Monday through Saturday.
Finally, in the basement of the behemoth that is Tokyo Station, the eight ramen shops along Koji Ramen Street offer specialties like Oreshiki Jun’s rich pork-stock ramen. There are instructions in English; you decide what you want and then buy a ticket from that shop’s vending machine. Note, however, that Ramen Street is very difficult to find. Assuming you do, avoid the mealtime crunch or else get in the queue. The shops are open daily 9:30am to 10:30pm.
Andy’s Shin Hinomoto ★★ VARIED JAPANESE — This hole-in-the-wall underneath the Yamanote elevated train tracks looks like it's been here since the rubble of post–World War II…because it has. Founded in 1945 when there were cubbyholes like this throughout a bombed-out Tokyo, it is owned by the founder's son-in-law, a Brit named Andy. As tiny as it is, it has an upstairs with an arched ceiling that is only marginally better than the downstairs with the charm of a fallout shelter. Yet this place is packed elbow to elbow every night with office workers, and the only way you might get your foot in the door without a reservation is to come right when it opens. The food, made with seafood and vegetables bought fresh daily at Tsukiji Market, includes tempura, a fish of the day, deep-fried chicken, chili prawns, salads (usually sold out by 8pm), and its signature stuffed gyoza chicken wings. Even with fluorescent lighting, soot-blackened walls, and a no-credit-card policy, this throwback is, in the words of Andy, always "insanely busy," and all from word of mouth.
2–4–4 Yurakucho. www.andysfish.com/Shin-Hinomoto. tel. 03/3214-8021. Main dishes ¥750–¥1,200. Mon–Sat 5pm–midnight. Station: Yurakucho or Ginza (1 min.). Underneath the Yamanote elevated tracks, across from the Yurakucho Denki Building.
Mugi to Olive ★★★ RAMEN — With ramen the hottest food craze, everyone has their favorites. The emphasis of this small, unassuming restaurant, with just two counters, is clearly on food and not decor. It distinguishes itself by combining wheat noodles (“mugi” means wheat) with olive oil. Choose from three soup stocks, made with chicken, clam, or small dried sardines (or order a dish with all three), available with different toppings. There’s also the mazesoba, which eschews broth altogether but comes with thick noodles, concentrated sauce, and toppings you mix together. After deciding what you want, buy the corresponding ticket from the vending machine.
6–12–12 Ginza. No phone or website. Ramen ¥880–¥1,180. Mon–Fri 11:30am–10pm; Sat–Sun and holidays 11:30am–9pm. Station: Ginza (exit 3A, 3 min.) or Higashi-Ginza (exit A1, 3 min.). Behind Ginza Six shopping complex; look for “Chinese Noodles” sign.
La Boheme ★ ITALIAN — The food is passable, but what sets La Boheme apart is that it’s open every day until 1am, making it a good bet for a late-night meal. In addition to pizza (like the one topped with shrimp, bacon, mushrooms, bell peppers, and cheese) and pasta (like creamy fettucine served with four kinds of mushrooms), it also offers a few meat dishes, like roasted chicken. La Boheme is actually one of four restaurants under the same ownership and all ensconced under a freeway in a winding dining complex called G-Zone, with Southeast Asian fare offered at Monsoon (www.monsoon-cafe.jp); burritos, enchiladas, tacos, and other Tex-Mex served at Zest Cantina (www.zest-cantina.jp); and Japanese food dished out in Gonpachi. English-language menus, cheap prices, friendly staff, and late open hours make these restaurants winners. Check the website for other locations around Tokyo.
1–2–3 Ginza. www.boheme.jp. tel. 03/5524-3616. Pizza and pasta ¥980–¥1,880; set lunches ¥1,000–¥1,500. Daily 11:30am–1am. Station: Kyobashi (exit 3, 2 min.) or Ginza-Itchome (exit 7, 1 min.). On Chuo Dori, at the northern edge of Ginza.
Shabusen (しゃぶせん) ★★ SHABU-SHABU — Ginza Core is a fashion department store near the Ginza 4–chome Crossing (the Harumi Dori–Chuo Dori intersection) and the improbable home of not one, but two very reasonably priced Shabusen restaurants. Although shabu-shabu is usually shared between two or more diners (you cook it yourself in a communal boiling pot at your own table), Shabusen also caters to individuals with one-person portions. The second-floor Shabusen is a bit nicer, with round counters good for lone diners and tables that are perfect for groups, while the second-basement restaurant features U-shaped counters that are a great choice for dining alone or with one other person. I personally love the experience of sitting at the counter—you can watch chefs preparing orders and, with other customers seated in close quarters, it doesn't really feel like you're eating alone. The English-language menu lists both pork and beef shabu-shabu sets, which you cook along with vegetables and eat with a ponzu or sesame dipping sauce.
Core Building, 5–8–20 Ginza. www.zakuro.co.jp/syabusen/index.html. tel. 03/3572-3806 (2nd basement) or 03/3571-1717 (2nd floor). Set lunches ¥1,500–¥4,000; set dinners ¥2,500–¥5,800. Daily 11am–9pm (last order). Station: Ginza (1 min.). On the east side of Chuo Dori just south of Harumi Dori.
Tsukiji Sushi Sen (築地すし鮮) ★ SUSHI — Renovated to provide more privacy between tables and with dimmer lights than its interrogation-room-like predecessor, this second-floor Ginza branch offers fresh sushi at bargain prices, served at a counter or at tables overlooking busy Harumi Dori. Other dishes are also available on the English-language menu, including salads, grilled seafood, and tempura. If you find yourself hungry in Ginza in the dead of night, this all-nighter is a good choice.
5–9–1 Ginza. tel. 03/5537-2878. Sushi a la carte (one piece) ¥98–¥398; set lunches ¥999–¥2,980; nigiri sets ¥1,980–¥4,800. 24 hr. Station: Higashi Ginza or Ginza (2 min.). From Ginza 4-chome Crossing, on the right side of Harumi Dori in the first block heading toward Showa Dori.
Waentei-Kikko (和えん亭 吉幸) ★★★ KAISEKI/BENTO — I can’t imagine a better place to cap off a visit to Asakusa than this. Located in a tiny house just a stone's throw from Sensoji Temple, it evokes the atmosphere of a farmhouse with its flagstone entry, wooden rafters, rustic furnishings, and tatami seating (with leg wells for those errant appendages). But what sets this place apart are the engaging couple who manage it and the live performances of traditional Japanese music four times daily (at 12:15, 1:30, 6:30, and 8pm), including concerts by Fukui Kodai, the husband of the managing duo and one of Japan's most accomplished Tsugaru shamisen musicians, who plays with the fervor of a rock star. Ordering is easy, as only seasonal set meals that change every month or so are served. Lunch features bento boxes, while kaiseki is served for dinner, including fugu (blowfish) kaiseki if you order it in advance. In short, dining here provides nourishment for both body and soul and is an experience you're likely to remember long after your trip has ended.
2–2–13 Asakusa. www.waentei-kikko.com. tel. 03/5828-8833. Bento lunches ¥2,500 and ¥3,500; kaiseki dinners ¥6,800–¥13,800. Thurs–Tues 11:30am–1:30pm and 5–8pm (last order). Station: Asakusa (5 min.). Walk on Nakamise Dori toward Sensoji Temple, turning right after the last shop; go past the 2 stone Buddhas, and then turn right again at the tiny Benten-do Temple with the large bell. The restaurant is on the right side of the street across from the playground.
Chinya (ちんや) ★★ SHABU-SHABU/SUKIYAKI — Established in 1880 but now ensconced in a seven-story building just steps away from Sensoji Temple, this well-known restaurant has been welcoming foreigners with an English-language menu for decades. Its foyer entrance, next to its own butcher shop (always a good sign), gives no hint as to what lies beyond, but soon there's a man taking your shoes and a kimono-clad hostess leading you upstairs to one of the tatami-floored rooms. It has various options for sukiyaki and shabu-shabu set meals and even provides instruction for how to cook at your table, making it a good bet for the sukiyaki/shabu-shabu novice. The set lunch is the best deal, served until 3pm and including an appetizer, pickles, miso soup, rice, dessert, and shabu-shabu or sukiyaki, while dinners require reservations and are much more extensive. These are not quick meals (and at this price you wouldn't expect them to be), so come prepared to relax and enjoy the occasion.
1–3–4 Asakusa. www.chinya.co.jp. tel. 03/3841-0010. Set lunches ¥4,300–¥6,300; set dinners ¥7,900–¥13,900. Table charge ¥500 extra per person for lunch, ¥600 for dinner. Mon and Thurs–Fri noon–3pm; Mon and Wed–Fri 4:30–9:30pm; Sat–Sun and holidays 11:30am–9pm (guests should arrive 2 hr. before closing time). Station: Asakusa (1 min.). On Kaminarimon Dori, to the left of the Kaminarimon Gate if you stand facing Asakusa Kannon Temple.
Copper-colored Gonpachi, overlooking the Sumida River at 2–1–15 Kaminarimon (tel. 03/5830-3791) right by the bridge, offers Japanese food.
Kamiya Bar ★ VARIED JAPANESE/WESTERN — I'm including this all-purpose restaurant not because it serves great food, but because it's been an Asakusa institution since 1880, attracting a largely working-class and elderly Japanese crowd with a down-home atmosphere that has all but died out in sophisticated Tokyo. Plus, ordering is easy thanks to plastic-food display cases and you have the choice of both Japanese and Western food (the Japanese food is better). For the full immersion, a bar with food on the first floor is famous for its Denki Bran, a concoction of brandy, gin, wine, vermouth, Curacao, and herbs (¥270 for a glass). The second floor serves yoshoku (the Japanese interpretation of Western food), like hamburger steak, crab croquette, spaghetti, fried shrimp, and fried chicken, while the third floor is the place to go for everything from sashimi and udon noodles to yakitori, bento, and tempura, as well as kaiseki lunches and, with advance reservations, dinners. Credit cards are accepted only on the second and third floors.
1–1–1 Asakusa. www.kamiya-bar.com. tel. 03/3841-5400. Main dishes ¥550–¥1,540; set lunches ¥850–¥1,200; Japanese set meals ¥1,540–¥3,600; kaiseki ¥4,100–¥7,200. Wed–Mon 11:30am–9:30pm (last order; 1st and 3rd floors closed 2–4pm). Station: Asakusa (1 min.). Located on Kaminarimon Dori in a plain, brown-tiled building btw. Kaminarimon Gate and the Sumida River.
Sansada (三定) ★★ TEMPURA — Established in 1837 and located right beside Kaminarimon Gate, this simple tempura restaurant specializes in Edo-style tempura, fried in a light sesame oil. On the first floor, seating is either at tables or on tatami, while the upstairs is more traditional with tatami seating; one room overlooks the temple gate. Run by an army of very able grandmotherly types, the restaurant has an English-language menu with photos of various options, including tendon (tempura on rice), noodles with tempura, bento boxes, and full-course meals.
1–2–2 Asakusa. www.tempura-sansada.co.jp. tel. 03/3841-3400. Tendon ¥1,460–¥2,700; set meals ¥1,700–¥7,680. Daily 11:30am–9:30pm (last order). Station: Asakusa (1 min.). East of Kaminarimon Gate, with entrances beside Kurodaya paper shop and also on Kaminarimon Dori.
Sometaro (染太郎) ★ OKONOMIYAKI — This very atmospheric neighborhood restaurant specializes in okonomiyaki, a working-class meal that is basically a Japanese pancake filled with beef, pork, and vegetables, and prepared by diners themselves as they sit on tatami at low tables inset with griddles. Realizing that some foreigners may be intimidated by having to cook an unfamiliar meal, this restaurant makes the process easier with an English-language menu complete with instructions. The busy but friendly staff can help you get started. Yakisoba (fried noodles) with meat or vegetables and other do-it-yourself dishes are also available. This is a fun, convivial way to enjoy a meal, but note that no credit cards are accepted. Before entering the restaurant, be sure to deposit your shoes in the proffered plastic sacks by the door.
2–2–2 Nishi-Asakusa. tel. 03/3844-9502. Main dishes ¥800–¥1,300. Daily noon–10pm (last order). Station: Tawaramachi (2 min.) or Asakusa (5 min.). At west end of Kaminarimon Dori, past Kokusai Dori with the corner police station, in 2nd block on right.
You’ll find a multitude of restaurants in all price categories between JR Ueno Station and Ueno Park in several new buildings, including Mori Sakura Terrace, with more than a dozen eateries offering French, Italian, and Chinese fare, as well as noodles, sushi, yakitori, udon, and other Japanese foods.
Innsyoutei (韻松亭) ★★★ KAISEKI/BENTO — I love the museums and attractions in Ueno Park, but a meal at this traditional restaurant makes the outing even more special. A Tokyo landmark since 1875, it has a simple tearoom with snacks on the ground floor and a restaurant upstairs, where meals are served in private tatami rooms or a small dining room overlooking greenery. There's an English-language menu, but let your budget be your guide in choosing a vegetarian, bento, or kaiseki set lunch, all of which change with the seasons. Dinner offers more expensive kaiseki and chicken sukiyaki. This restaurant is extremely popular with older Japanese women, but reservations are accepted only for four or more, so be prepared to wait in line. During the cherry blossom season, when Ueno Park swarms with sightseers, Innsyoutei limits its menu to only a few set meals complete with flowers to honor the season, but you'll be lucky to get your foot in the door then. Credit cards are not accepted.
In Ueno Park. www.innsyoutei.jp. tel. 03/3821-8126. Set lunches ¥1,680–¥6,800; set dinners ¥5,500–¥16,000. Daily 11am–3pm; Mon–Sat 5–9:30pm; Sun 5–8:30pm (last order). Station: JR Ueno (6 min.). Beside the row of orange torii leading downhill.
Izu’ei Honten (伊豆栄本店) ★★ EEL — This restaurant's history goes back a mere 270 years to the middle of the Edo Period, but you'd never know that from the modern multistoried building that stands here today. The dining rooms are pleasant and overlook Shinobazu Pond, but the star of the show here is grilled eel. The quality of charcoal used to grill the eel is considered paramount, and this restaurant is justly proud of its very own furnace in the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture, said to produce the best charcoal in Japan. An English-language menu with photos will help you select from about 15 different set meals featuring eel, but there's also tempura, bento, and, with advance reservations, kaiseki. Not all eel restaurants go to the lengths this one does to assure the quality of its food, so I consider this place a real treat.
2–12–22 Ueno. www.izuei.co.jp. tel. 03/3831-0954. Set meals ¥1,750–¥5,400; kaiseki ¥6,480–¥16,200. Daily 11am–9:30pm (last order). Station: JR Ueno (3 min.). On Shinobazu Dori, across the street from Shinobazu Pond and the Shitamachi Museum, next to KFC.
New York Grill ★★★ AMERICAN — Stunning views, great steaks and seafood, an artsy vibe, and live jazz wafting in from the adjoining bar all contribute in making a meal at this 52nd-floor venue an experience to remember. Even the short walkway to the dining area is singular, with an all-white open kitchen on the left and a glass wall on the right that gives the illusion of a sheer drop-off—definitely not for the vertigo-challenged. The restaurant backs up its dramatic setting with a menu of grilled and baked dishes using ingredients from around the world, including steaks from various regions of Japan, Australian rack of lamb, and Hokkaido scallops. Its 1,600-bottle cellar features almost exclusively Californian wines, including boutique vintages you won't find anywhere else in Japan. For less formal dining (and where I like to sit when eating solo), counter seats along the open kitchen let you watch chefs in action. Both the set lunch and the weekend and holiday brunches are among the city’s best and most sumptuous—and great options for those who don’t want to pawn their belongings just to eat dinner here. No matter when you come, reservations are a must. I wouldn’t miss it.
Park Hyatt Tokyo, 3–7–1–2 Nishi-Shinjuku. http://restaurants.tokyo.park.hyatt.co.jp/nyg.html. tel. 03/5323-3458. Main dishes ¥3,600–¥12,400; set lunch ¥5,500; set dinners ¥11,000–¥20,000; Sat–Sun and holiday brunch ¥7,500. Daily 11:30am–2:30pm and 5:30–10pm. Station: Shinjuku (west exit, 13-min. walk or 5-min. free shuttle ride), Hatsudai on the Keio Line (7 min.), or Tochomae on the Oedo Line (8 min.).
Kakiden (柿伝) ★★ KAISEKI — Although it’s located on the eighth floor of a rather uninspiring building, Kakiden has a relaxing yet simple teahouse atmosphere, with shoji screens providing privacy between tables and soothing traditional Japanese music playing softly in the background. Sibling restaurant to one in Kyoto founded more than 270 years ago as a catering service for practitioners of the tea ceremony, this kaiseki restaurant has been serving set meals that change with the seasons for 40 years, according to what’s fresh and available. An English-language menu lists the set meals, but it’s probably best to simply pick a meal to fit your budget. Some of the more common dishes here include fish, seasonal vegetables, sashimi, shrimp, and mushrooms, but don’t worry if you can’t identify everything—I’ve found that even the Japanese don’t always know what they’re eating. Set lunches are available until 3pm.
Yasuo Building 8F, 3–37–11 Shinjuku, 8th floor. www.kakiden.com. tel. 03/3352-5121. Set lunches ¥4,000–¥7,000; set dinners ¥5,000–¥20,000. Mon–Fri 11am–2pm; Sat–Sun and holidays 11am–3pm; daily 5–8pm (last order). Station: Shinjuku (east exit, 1 min.). Next to Shinjuku Station’s east side, north of Flags.
Ban-Thai (バンタイ) ★ THAI — One of Tokyo’s longest-running Thai restaurants and credited with introducing authentic Thai food to the Japanese, Ban-Thai prepares excellent Thai fare, with 90-plus mouthwatering items on the menu. My favorites are the spicy minced chicken salad, the chicken soup with coconut and lemongrass, the deep-fried flatfish with sweet and spicy topping, and the pad Thai. Note that portions are not large, so if you order several portions and add beer, your tab can really climb. Also, service is indifferent. Still, this place is packed every time I come here. If you don’t have a reservation, you can queue and wait, but the line moves fairly quickly.
1–23–14 Kabuki-cho, 3rd floor. www.ban-thai.jp. tel. 03/3207-0068. Main dishes ¥1,200–¥1,800; set lunches ¥850–¥1,300 (Mon–Fri only). Mon–Fri 11:30am–3pm and 5–11:45pm; Sat–Sun and holidays 11:30am–11:45pm. Station: Shinjuku (east exit, 7 min.). In the seediest part of Kabuki-cho (don’t worry, the interior is nicer than the exterior). From Yasukuni Dori, take the pedestrian street beside 7-Eleven with a red neon archway; it’s soon on the left side, above St. James Bar.
Din Tai Fung ★ CHINESE — Tokyo’s first branch of Taiwan’s most popular dumpling restaurant is so popular, you’ll probably have to join the long line of people waiting to get in. Luckily, the line moves fast and you’ll soon find yourself dining inside the noisy restaurant or outside on the spacious terrace (unfortunately, sans views). The English-language menu lists various steamed and soup dumplings, including the signature pork dumplings served in piping-hot bamboo steamers, along with dishes like rice cakes and noodle soups. Din Tai Fung started out in 1958 as a retailer selling cooking oil in Taiwan and has been a smashing success across Asia. The Japanese are among its most avid customers, with seven locations in Tokyo alone, including one in Ginza.
Takashimaya Shinjuku, 12th floor, 5–24–2 Sendagaya. http://d.rt-c.co.jp/shinjuku. tel. 03/5361-1381. Dim sum ¥238–¥1,361; set lunches ¥1,556–¥1,890. Daily 11am–10pm (last order). Station: Shinjuku (New South Exit, 1 min.). Next to Uniqlo.
Kohmen (光麺) ★ RAMEN — I like popping in here mid-afternoon when I missed lunch or as a lifesaver for those very late revelries. Kohmen has branches across the city, including in Ueno, Akihabara, and Harajuku, each with its own decor and opening hours. The English-language menu lists options like thick or thin noodles, various broths (the basic soup is made from stewing pig and chicken bones for up to 12 hr.), and extra toppings like grilled pork. I like the kagashi-tantanmen (a creamy sesame soup with noodles, hot chili, and chargrilled marinated pork) so much that I've never tried anything else, which is highly unusual for me. I also can’t resist an order of gyoza. Bring cash; Kohmen doesn't accept credit cards.
3–32–2 Shinjuku. www.kohmen.com. tel. 03/5919-1660. Ramen ¥820–¥1,200. Mon–Thurs 10:30am–2am; Fri–Sat 10:30am–5am; Sun and holidays 10:30am–midnight. Station: Shinjuku or Shinjuku Sanchome (4 min.) Between the stations, south on the side street running west of Beams.
Tokyo Catering ★ VARIED JAPANESE — This is probably the cheapest place in town for a meal with a view. Located on the 32nd floor in the north tower of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office (TMG), which offers a free observation room on its 45th floor, this cafeteria serves public employees but is open to everyone. Choose your meal—from pork cutlet, fried fish, sushi, tempura, and curry rice to noodles—from the cart laden with displays of daily set meals or the display case, where every item is identified by a number. You then purchase your selections from a vending machine (no credit cards accepted) and take your tickets to the cafeteria window. My last set meal consisted of fish tempura, rice, soup and salad. The cafeteria lacks charm, but if you can get a table by the window, you’ll have a good view of Tokyo. Although it’s open throughout the weekday, only snacks like ramen are available after 2pm (avoid dining from noon to 1pm, when government employees eat their lunch). There’s another staff restaurant on the 32nd floor of the south tower with the same system and hours.
TMG, 32nd floor of North Tower (take the office elevator, not the elevator to the observatory), 2–8–1 Nishi-Shinjuku. tel. 03/5320-7513. Set meals ¥590–¥690. Mon–Fri 11:30am–2pm. Closed holidays. Station: Tochomae (1 min.), Shinjuku (10 min.), or Nishi-Shinjuku (5 min.).
Tsunahachi (つな八) ★★ TEMPURA — Tsunahachi has been serving tempura since 1923, with this location opened the same year as the Tokyo Olympics, in 1964. Occupying a modest, old-fashioned building east of Shinjuku Station, it's nevertheless Tsunahachi's largest outlet, with both tables and—more fun—counter seating along the open kitchen. Unfortunately, during busy times foreigners tend to be shunted to the second-floor counter, so try to avoid the meal-time rush for a seat on the more atmospheric ground floor. There’s an English-language menu, but probably the easiest thing to do is to order one of three set meals, with the cheapest including six pieces of tempura deep-fried in sesame oil, including shrimp, conger eel, seasonal fish, shrimp balls, and vegetables, plus rice, miso soup, and Japanese pickles; if you’re still hungry, you can always order a la carte. Branches are located in department stores around town, including Keio in Shinjuku, Matsuya in Ginza, Lumine in Ikebukuro, and Daimaru on the Yaesu side of Tokyo Station.
3–31–8 Shinjuku. www.tunahachi.co.jp. tel. 03/3352-1012. Set lunches ¥1,500–¥2,500; tempura set meals ¥2,300–¥8,000. Daily 11am–10pm (last order). Station: Shinjuku Sanchome (2 min.) or Shinjuku (east exit, 5 min.). Off Shinjuku Dori on the side street that runs along the east side of the combination Bic Camera/Uniqlo store.
Harajuku & Aoyama
Two Rooms Grill/Bar ★★★ CONTINENTAL — Dress smartly to fit in with the fashion-conscious 40-somethings who gather here for high-powered business lunches and after-work cocktails. The sleek dining room looks like a setting in a black-and-white movie with its white walls and tablecloths, waiters decked out in black with crisp white aprons, and steel and glass architectural details. Bringing the scene to life are warm woods (including tables made of 50,000-year-old swamp kauri timber from New Zealand), jazz playing softly in the background, and an open kitchen briskly turning out orders. But what I love most about this place is the bar, with an outdoor terrace over an infinity pool offering poster-perfect views of the city skyline from comfy sofas. As for the menu, Wagyu beef reigns supreme, though there other yummy choices include the lamb chops or the slow-cooked pork sirloin. Weekday lunches and weekend brunches also come highly recommended (make reservations), but even if you don't dine here, a drink on the outdoor terrace will make Tokyo seem like the most relaxing place in the world. The bar is open until 2am (Sun until 10pm).
AO Building, 5th floor, 3–11–7 Kita-Aoyama. www.tworooms.jp. tel. 03/3498-0002. Main dishes ¥2,800–¥9,500; set lunches ¥2,500–¥6,100; set dinners ¥8,500–¥11,000. Daily 11:30am–2:30pm; Mon–Sat 6–10pm; Sun 6–9pm (last order). Station: Omotesando (exit B2, 1 min.). It’s on the right side of Aoyama Dori in the direction of Shibuya, in the striking, trapezoidal AO Building.
Cicada ★★ MEDITERRANEAN — Occupying a half-century-old building designed by a well-known architect and tucked away in its own little world, Cicada offers dishes influenced by the sun-drenched countries of southern Europe and northern Africa. For starters, you might choose Iberico chorizo or the manchego platter with membrillo (a Spanish quince snack) and pumpkin seeds, though there’s also a wide choice of tapas, like the spicy Moroccan crab cakes. For a main, tempting dishes include grilled jumbo shrimp in tomato, garbanzo, and olive sauce with harissa cream; the lamb tagine with couscous; or one of the many vegetarian options. In addition to its own craft beer, Cicada offers wines from Spain, Italy, Greece, Morocco, and other Mediterranean countries. With its subdued lighting and classy dining areas that include outdoor terraces surrounded by a pool or greenery, this is the perfect spot for a romantic meal. For that reason, note that if you have a child younger than six you'll have to pay extra for a private room. In that case, I’d say go elsewhere.
5–7–28 Minami-Aoyama. www.tysons.jp. tel. 03/6434-1255. Main dishes ¥2,000–¥2,800; set lunches ¥1,800–¥3,800 (Mon–Fri only). Daily 11:30am–3pm and 5:30–11pm (last order). Station: Omotesando (exit B1, 1 min.). Behind the Spiral Building; take the first left and then right. It’s in a courtyard, past a cafe and bakery.
eatrip restaurant ★★★ VARIED JAPANESE/WESTERN — You’d never think you’re in the middle of bustling Harajuku when dining here. That’s because eatrip is located in a small, free-standing rustic house, not unlike what you might find in the Italian countryside. In addition, it’s reached via stairs that take you through a small garden adjacent to a flower shop, looking all the world like a place in which fairies might live. Specializing in locally sourced organic food, it offers constantly changing farm-to-table dishes expertly prepared. A limited a-la-carte menu is served only on the terrace, so you’ll probably want to go for one of the set meals with seasonal appetizers and meat, fish, or vegetable of the day, accompanied, perhaps, by organic wine or homemade ginger ale. In any case, make reservations to experience this whimsical place.
6–31–10 Jingumae. http://restaurant-eatrip.com. tel. 03/3409-4002. Set meals ¥5,000–¥8,000. Sat 11:30–2pm; Sun 11:30am–3:30pm; Tues–Sat 6–11pm (last order). Station: Meiji-Jingumae (1 min.) or Harajuku (2 min.). Between the two stations, behind Zara.
Maru (圓) ★★ MODERN JAPANESE — Reservations are a must at this tiny hideaway off Aoyama Dori, where seating is confined to only a few wooden tables and a long counter stretching along the open kitchen. The English-language menu, which changes to reflect what's in season, offers a tempting roster of choices ranging from classic Kyoto-style kaiseki to creative dishes with a contemporary twist. The friendly and hip staff is happy to help narrow down selections based on individual preferences, but one dish you shouldn't pass up is the restaurant's signature donabe, rice simmered in a clay pot and served with a choice of toppings. Other main dishes may include Wagyu beef preserved in Kyoto miso or a seasonal vegetable tempura. But for a splurge or for those who can't make up their mind, there are monthly set meals that always include donabe. Drinks range from wine to sake and shochu, including awamori, an Okinawan shochu made from Thai rice. There's a branch in Ginza, serving only three set meals for dinner and a ¥1,000 lunch.
5–50–8 Jingumae. www.maru-mayfont.jp. tel. 03/6418-5572. Main dishes ¥1,050–¥2,800; set meals ¥5,500–¥7,500. Mon–Fri 6–11pm; Sat 5–11; Sun and holidays 5–10:30pm (last order). Station: Omotesando (3 min.). Walk toward Shibuya on Aoyama Dori and turn right at Muji; it’s almost immediately on the right, in a basement.
Yasaiya Mei (やさい家めい) ★★ VARIED JAPANESE — If you like veggies, this restaurant is a must, specializing in fresh, seasonal, and mostly organic vegetables (note that because it uses fish stock for many of its dishes and meat dishes, it is not a strictly vegetarian restaurant). Reservations are also a must. Although it offers a few à la carte selections (carrot kimchi, say, or the Mei Special bagna cauda, which comes with a variety of veggies such as eggplant, radish, and asparagus), set meals are the emphasis here. For lunch your meal might include vegetable pressed “sushi” with vegetable tempura and side dishes, while dinner offers sukiyaki and meals like the Vegetable Gozen, which comes with sweet potato soup, bagna cauda, and a slew of vegetables and other dishes. Seating is either at the U-shaped open kitchen or a table—try to snag one beside the large windows overlooking the trees of Omotesando Dori.
Omotesando Hills, 3rd floor, 4–12–10 Jingumae. www.eat-walk.com/en/mei/index.html. tel. 03/5785-0606. Set lunches ¥1,290–¥2,090; set dinners ¥4,900–¥4,900. Mon–Sat 11am–10:30pm; Sun 11am–9:30pm (last order). Station: Meiji-Jingumae or Omotesando (4 min.). On Omotesando Dori.
In addition to the choices below, Kohmen , 6–2–8 Jingumae (tel. 03/5468-6344), serves tasty ramen and gyoza. Off Aoyama Dori is Commune 2nd, 3–13 Minami Aoyama, a plaza with food trucks and carts offering falafel, vegan curries, gourmet French fries, noodles, and more from 11am to 10pm, with indoor heated seating in winter.
Harajuku Gyoza Lou (原宿餃子樓) ★ GYOZA — If you like gyoza (pork dumplings), you owe yourself a meal here. Hip yet unpretentious, it draws a young crowd with its straightforward menu posted on the wall (an English-language menu is also available). Only one type of gyoza is offered, which you can order steamed (sui-gyoza) or fried (yaki-gyoza), and with or without garlic (ninniku). A few side dishes, such as boiled cabbage with vinegar, sprouts with a spicy meat sauce, and rice, are available, as are beer and sake. A U-shaped counter encloses the open kitchen, which diners can watch as they chow down on the very good gyoza. There’s usually a queue out the door, but this isn’t the kind of place people linger, so it’s worth the wait. No credit cards accepted.
6–2–4 Jingumae. tel. 03/3406-4743. Gyoza ¥290 for a plate of 6. Mon–Sat 11:30am–4:30am; Sun and holidays 11:30am–10:30pm (last order). Station: Meiji-Jingumae (3 min.) or Harajuku (5 min.). From the Meiji/Omotesando Dori intersection, walk on Omotesando Dori toward Aoyama and take the 3rd right (just before Kiddy Land); it’s at the end of this alley, on the right.
Heirokuzushi (平禄寿司) ★ SUSHI — Bright (a bit too bright), clean, and modern, this was the first kaiten sushi restaurant I ever saw, one of those fast-food sushi bars where plates of food roll along a conveyor belt on the counter. It’s now extremely popular with foreigners from around the world, who help themselves to whatever strikes their fancy, from the usual tuna to more unusual avocado. To figure your bill, the cashier counts the number of plates you took from the conveyor belt: Green plates cost ¥130, for example; blue ones ¥170, and so on; no credit cards are accepted. You can also order takeout, which you might want to eat in nearby Yoyogi Park.
5–8–5 Jingumae. www.g-taste.co.jp/en/brands/heiroku-sushi/. tel. 03/3498-3968. Plates of sushi ¥130–¥490. Daily 11am–9pm. Station: Meiji-Jingumae (2 min.) or Omotesando (5 min.). On Omotesando Dori close to Oriental Bazaar.
Hiroba ★★ JAPANESE/VEGETARIAN — Located in the basement of the Crayon House, which specializes in Japanese children’s books, this natural-food restaurant offers lunch and dinner buffets of organic veggies, fish, brown rice, and other health foods. On Mondays the dinner buffet is completely vegetarian. From 2:40 to 5:30pm, during so-called tea time, it also offers three curry set meals (including a vegetarian option), pizza, and desserts. The dining hall, next to an organic food store, is very simple (it reminds me of a potluck supper in a church basement), but it also offers outdoor seating in a sunken courtyard surrounded by plants, where you can order organic wine. And because of the upstairs bookstore, there are likely to be families here.
Crayon House, 3–8–15 Kita-Aoyama. www.crayonhouse.co.jp/shop/pages/restaurant_en.aspx. tel. 03/3406-6409. Lunch buffet ¥1,500; dinner buffet ¥2,700. Mon–Fri 11am–2pm; Sat–Sun 10:30am–2pm; daily 5:30–10pm (last order). Station: Omotesando (2 min.). From the Omotesando/Aoyama Dori intersection, walk on Omotesando Dori toward Harajuku and take first left (btw. Coach and Hugo Boss).
Maisen (まい泉) ★★ TONKATSU — Plenty of Tokyoites consider this the best tonkatsu (deep-fried breaded pork cutlet) restaurant in Tokyo. In business since 1965, it now has several locations around town, including the basement of Daimaru department store and the Hikarie Building in Shibuya. But this is the main store and the most atmospheric, with a main dining hall ensconced in what was once the dressing room of a pre–World War II public bathhouse, where a tall ceiling and other original architectural details hint at its former life. The English-language menu lists various dishes and set meals, the most famous of which features tonkatsu made from black pig from Kagoshima, which has a sweet, more intense flavor than regular pork. Tonkatsu comes with finely shredded cabbage and Maisen's own sauce. Lunch specials, available until 4pm, are listed only in Japanese, but photos are provided. A takeout window offers various bento boxes and Maisen products, including its own curry sauce.
4–8–5 Jingumae. www.mai-sen.com. tel. 03/3470-0071. Set meals ¥1,730–¥3,960; set lunches ¥990–¥1,300. Daily 11am–10pm (last order). Station: Omotesando A2 exit (4 min.). Heading toward Harajuku on Omotesando Dori, take the first right (an archway here has fitness club gold’s gym written on it), then the 1st left and an immediate right. It will be in the next block on the left.
Toriyoshi (鳥良) ★ JAPANESE/INTERNATIONAL — This hip, upscale bar is a popular dining spot as well, especially for its chicken specialties such as fried chicken wings and half a fried chicken. The English menu isn’t up to date, but it has photos and is a good starting point for ordering ramen, yakitori, salads, kimchi, and other Japanese and Asian pub fare. You’ll want to order several dishes tapas style and then share. It's a good place for a convivial meal, but note that there’s a ¥399 snack charge per person.
4–28–21 Jingumae. tel. 03/3470-3901. Main dishes ¥460–¥988. Mon–Fri 11:30pm–3pm and 5–11pm; Sat–Sun 11:30am–2pm and 4–11pm (last order). Station: Meiji-Jingumae (3 min.). From the Meiji Dori/Omotesando intersection, walk on Omotesando Dori toward Aoyama and take the 1st left; it’s down this street on the right side, beside a willow tree.
Venire Venire ★ ITALIAN — At Venire Venire, you can see for yourself how inexpensive doesn’t necessarily mean drab. This tall-ceilinged trattoria is light and airy, with a large outdoor terrace (open from late Apr to Oct) affording sweeping views over the surrounding rooftops. It offers pizzas and pastas, as well as a handful of main dishes like lamb chops with red wine and a green herb sauce. It has a large selection of Italian wines. This is a popular wedding venue, so call ahead to avoid disappointment, or have an alternative plan.
Y.M. Square, 5th floor; 4–31–10 Jingumae. tel. 03/5775-5333. Pizza and pasta ¥1,400–¥1,800; main dishes ¥1,400–¥2,400; set lunches ¥1,000–¥3,800. Mon–Fri 11:30am–3:30pm and 5–11pm; Sat–Sun and holidays 11:30am–4pm and 5–10:30pm. Station: Harajuku (1 min.). On Meiji Dori, just north of Tokyu Plaza and across from La Foret.
Yai Yai (やいやい) ★ OKONOMIYAKI — Instead of having to cook your own okonomiyaki, all you have to do here is order, whereupon the young staff sets to work cooking your meal on a griddle in front of you. You choose the toppings—such as pork and leek, seafood, and kimchi—to add to the pancakelike base, cabbage, and egg. Fried noodles and negi-yaki (flat dough with leeks) are also available, as well as some vegetarian options. The interior is dark and homey, a nice escape from the crowds of Harajuku.
6–8–7 Jingumae. www.opefac.com/yaiyai. tel. 03/3406-8181. Okonomiyaki or fried noodles ¥880–¥1,490. Mon–Fri 1:30pm–midnight; Sat–Sun and holidays 11:30am–midnight. Station: Meiji-Jingumae (3 min.) or Harajuku (7 min.). From the Meiji Dori/Omotesando intersection, walk on Omotesando Dori toward Aoyama and take the 2nd right; it will be on the left, past TGI Friday’s.
Because Roppongi is such a popular nighttime hangout for young Tokyoites and foreigners, it boasts a large number of both Japanese and Western restaurants. To find the location of any of the Roppongi addresses below, stop by the tiny police station on Roppongi Crossing (Roppongi’s main intersection of Roppongi Dori and Gaien-Higashi Dori) to study a map of the area or ask for directions. Catty-cornered from the police station, on the other side of the overhead expressway, is the number-one meeting spot in Roppongi, in front of Almond coffee shop. If you’re meeting someone, this will likely be the spot.
About a 12-minute walk west of Roppongi (via Roppongi Dori in the direction of Shibuya) is Nishi Azabu, with more restaurants and bars. Between Roppongi Crossing and Nishi Azabu is Roppongi Hills, a sprawling urban development with many choices in dining.
Fukuzushi (福鮨) ★★★ SUSHI — Tokyo has thousands of sushi restaurants in all price ranges, but this classy spot has proven the test of time with its superb fresh fish and devoted following. Founded in 1917 and now under its fourth generation of owners, it has a courtyard entrance that beckons with lit lanterns and the sound of water, but inside it's all contemporary Tokyo, with pop-out reds contrasted against black furnishings. Because the owner-chef goes to market daily, dishes change regularly and with the seasons. Lunch offers four set meals, from a nigiri-zushi course to anago-jyu (sea eel on rice), all with side dishes like steamed egg custard or miso soup and dessert. Set dinners feature many more dishes, with the ¥9,000 meal including an appetizer, sashimi and sushi, egg custard, the day’s dish (like grilled fish), miso soup, dessert, and coffee. Or tell the chef your budget and preferences and he'll take it from there.
5–7–8 Roppongi. www.roppongifukuzushi.com. tel. 03/3402-4116. Set lunches ¥2,500–¥3,500; set dinners ¥7,000–¥15,000. Mon–Sat 11:30am–1:30pm and 6–10pm (last order). Closed holidays. Station: Roppongi (4 min.). From Roppongi Crossing, walk toward Tokyo Tower on Gaien-Higashi Dori, turning right at the first stoplight, left in front of Hard Rock Cafe, and then right.
Inakaya (田舎屋) ★★ ROBATAYAKI — Although tourist-oriented and overpriced, this restaurant is still great entertainment; the drama of the place alone is worth it. Customers sit at a long, U-shaped counter, on the other side of which are mountains of fresh vegetables, beef, and seafood. And in the middle of all that food, seated in front of a grill, are male chefs—ready to cook whatever you point to in the style of robatayaki. Orders are shouted out by your waiter and repeated in unison by the other waiters, resulting in ongoing, excited yelling. Sounds strange, I know, but actually it’s a lot of fun. Food offerings may include yellowtail, red snapper, scallops, king crab legs, giant shrimp, steak, meatballs, gingko nuts, potatoes, eggplant, and asparagus, all piled high in wicker baskets and ready for the grill. My main gripe is that unless you keep referring to the menu, the price of individual dishes quickly adds up, with most meals averaging around ¥25,000 to ¥30,000. Come expecting to spend money, and you won’t be disappointed. Another branch nearby, at 5–3–4 Roppongi (tel. 03/3408-5040), is open the same hours.
4–10–11 Roppongi. www.roppongiinakaya.jp. tel. 03/5775-1012. Grilled vegetables ¥756–¥2,160; grilled seafood and meats ¥1,890–¥5,400. Daily 5–10:30pm (last order). Station: Roppongi (2 min.). Off Gaien-Higashi Dori on a side street; from Roppongi Crossing, walk on Gaien-Higashi Dori in the direction of Midtown and take the 2nd right.
Ruby Jack’s Steakhouse & Bar ★★★ STEAK — These people really know their steak. If you wish, they’ll give you a primer on the differences among Japanese Wagyu (aged 45 days in the restaurant and the fattiest and, to my mind, most tender), U.S. prime cuts, and Australian grain-fed black Angus. If you really want to go all out, order the teppan-grilled foie gras to go with that grilled steak. Other choices are on the menu, including rack of lamb and fish of the day, but really, why bother? The ciabatta is house-made and oysters make a great starter, and you may want to add the yummy mashed potatoes with garlic chips or the creamed spinach. And what would a good steak be without red wine? This is a very corporate type of place, with tall ceilings and a glass facade overlooking a terrace where you can enjoy drinks and dessert. Lunches add sandwiches and lighter fare, while weekend brunches include breakfast choices.
Ark Hills South Tower, 1–4–5 Roppongi. www.rubyjacks.jp. tel. 03/5544-8222. Main dishes ¥3,200–¥8,500; set dinners ¥7,500–¥10,000. Mon–Fri 11am–2:30pm; Sat–Sun and holidays 11am–3pm; Mon–Sat 6–10pm; Sun and holidays 6–9pm (last order). Station: Roppongi (8 min.), Roppongi-Itchome (3 min.), or Tameike-Sanno (5 min.). At the bottom of Roppongi Dori, near ANA InterContinental Tokyo.
Tokyo Shiba Toufuya Ukai ★★★ TOFU — This restaurant lies practically in the shadows of Tokyo Tower, but it has such a serene setting and lush gardens that it instantly transports customers to another time and place. Specializing in classic tofu cuisine, the restaurant is spread over several structures that are remakes of traditional architecture, from the kura (warehouse) with its thick, white walls and vaulted door to the main building with its heavy beams and foot-thick lacquered pillars (once part of an old farmhouse in Takayama). Surrounding the buildings are exquisite gardens, tended to by three fulltime gardeners and boasting ponds, streams, gnarled pines, stone lanterns, arched bridges, and strolling paths (be sure to walk through the back garden after your meal). The main dining hall overlooks the back garden, but most guests opt for one of the private tatami rooms, many also with garden views. It offers only set meals, which change with the seasons and are explained on an English-language menu. The least expensive lunch (available only weekdays) may start with a lotus root cake with sea urchin and deep-fried tofu coated with miso sauce, followed by assorted sashimi, deep-fried simmered tofu with crab, a main dish, tofu boiled in a seasoned soy milk, rice with sweet potato, and dessert. Reservations are a must.
4–4–13 Shibakoen. www.ukai.co.jp. tel. 03/3436-1028. Set lunches ¥5,940–¥7,560; set dinners ¥10,800–¥16,200. Mon–Fri 11:45am–3pm and 5pm–10pm; Sat–Sun and holidays 11am–10pm (last order 8pm). Station: Akabanebashi (5 min.). Behind Tokyo Tower.
Joumon Roppongi ★★★ KUSHIYAKI — This hipster kushiyaki restaurant specializes in seasonal grilled delicacies, like scallops in butter soy sauce or yellowtail in teriyaki sauce, as well as menu items like chicken breast with wasabi, seared Japanese beef, homemade sesame tofu, salads, and noodle dishes. Or, order eight skewers chosen by the chef for ¥1,680. Reservations are required, with seating either at the low counter (best for watching the action of the kitchen) or one of the tables in back.
5–9–17 Roppongi. www.teyandei.com. tel. 03/3405-2585. Skewers ¥200–¥250. Main dishes ¥700–¥1,500. Sun–Thurs 5:30–11pm; Fri–Sat 5:30pm–5am. Station: Roppongi (4 min.). From Roppongi Crossing, take the small street going downhill to the left of the Almond coffee shop; it will be on your left, with a somewhat hidden and obscure door.
Roti Roppongi ★★ AMERICAN — A casual brasserie with both indoor (nonsmoking) and outdoor seating, Roti counts many expats among its loyal customers, thanks in part to its quiet, tucked-away location just a minute’s walk from Roppongi Hills. It offers a fresh take on modern American fare, which includes imported oysters, free-range roasted or grilled chicken (available with green garlic, mushroom, or coconut curry sauce), grilled steaks, a variety of burgers, serious Caesar salads, and many other delectable dishes too numerous to mention. More than 90 bottles of New World, Australian, and New Zealand wines, as well as American craft beers and Belgian microbrews, round out the menu. It’s also a great place for the weekend brunch, served until a decent 5pm.
6–6–9 Roppongi. www.roti.jp. tel. 03/5785-3671. Main dishes ¥1,400–¥3,200. Daily 11:30am–5pm and 6–10. Station: Roppongi (A1 exit, 1 min.). On a side street that parallels Roppongi Dori, a stone’s throw from Roppongi Hills and beside Frijoles.
Frijoles ★ MEXICAN — Next to Roti (above), this casual eatery serves only a few dishes—burritos, tacos, and salads—but it does them extremely well, making this a very popular choice for a quick meal or takeout. Head to the counter and choose your medium (taco, burrito, or salad bowl), your meat (chicken, steak, or seasoned pork; vegetarian also available), toppings (black beans, pinto beans, cheese, etc.), and salsa (from mild to fiery hot), and then head to the small dining area or one of the outdoor tables. Most of the food is prepared on-site, and it shows. Frijoles will remind you of Chipotle, except that here you can also order a margarita.
6–6–9 Roppongi. www.frijoles.jp. tel. 03/6447-1433. Main dishes ¥980–¥1,690. Daily 11am–10pm (closed 2nd Sun of every month). Station: Roppongi (A1 exit, 1 min.). On a side street that parallels Roppongi Dori, a stone’s throw from Roppongi Hills, beside Roti.
Ganchan (がんちゃん) ★ YAKITORI — This is one of my favorite yakitori-ya. Small and intimate, with seating along a single counter with room for only a dozen or so people, it has a young and fun-loving staff. Though there’s an English-language menu, it’s easiest to order the yakitori seto, a delicious set course that comes with salad and soup and eight skewers of such items as chicken, beef, meatballs, green peppers, and asparagus rolled with bacon. The ¥600 per-person table charge includes an appetizer.
6–8–23 Roppongi. tel. 03/3478-0092. Yakitori skewers ¥320–¥750; yakitori set course ¥2,700. Mon–Fri 5pm–1:30am; Sat and holidays 5–11:30pm. Station: Roppongi (7 min.). From Roppongi Crossing, take the small street going downhill left of the Almond coffee shop; Ganchan is at the bottom of the hill on the right, just before the stoplight.
Gonpachi ★★ VARIED JAPANESE/YAKITORI — Housed in a re-created kura (traditional Japanese warehouse) with a high ceiling, three-tiered seating, and a central, open kitchen, this is one of Tokyo’s most imaginative inexpensive Japanese restaurants (it’s said to have served as the inspiration for the animated restaurant scene in the movie Kill Bill). It offers a wide variety of dishes, including yakitori (such as duck breast with wasabi), fish (such as miso-glazed black cod), sushi (on the third floor), tempura, and noodles. From the outside, you’d expect this place to be much more exclusive than it is—and you probably will be excluded if you fail to make reservations for dinner. Branches include those in the G-Zone, 1–2–3 Ginza, and in Shibuya on the 14th floor of E-Space Tower, 3–6 Maruyama-cho, but they don’t match this location’s atmosphere.
1–13–11 Nishi Azabu. www.gonpachi.jp. tel. 03/5771-0170. Yakitori ¥300–¥1,400; main dishes ¥1,580–¥2,980; set lunches ¥1,000–¥3,000 (from ¥2,000 Sat–Sun; set dinners ¥4,500–¥6,000. Daily 11:30am–3:30am. Station: Roppongi (12 min.). From Roppongi Crossing, walk toward Shibuya on Roppongi Dori. It will be on your right, at the corner of Gaien-Nishi Dori.
Legato Sky Lounge ★★★ ITALIAN/FUSION — With its dramatic setting and innovative cuisine, you'd expect this restaurant to be much more expensive than it is. After the elevator delivers you to the 15th floor, you might be tempted to stop or come back later for a drink at the tear-shaped bar, open until 3am, where the view takes in the shimmering lights of Shibuya. Then you'll make your entrance down the short flight of steps to the sunken restaurant below, bathed in the warm glow of lanterns hanging from the ceiling and candles on each table, which are spaced widely enough to make this an intimate romantic splurge. The open kitchen turns out a handful of main dishes like steak and roasted lobster, plus a few pasta and pizza choices, including a black truffle pizza with onion, bacon, and cream. The knowledgeable, mostly international staff is happy to make recommendations. The wine list travels the world with bottles in all price ranges, but there's also plenty of bubbly to help celebrate a special occasion. Be sure to call for reservations and weekend hours—weddings and other events often close this venue to the public.
E-Space Tower, 15th floor, 3–6 Maruyama-cho. https://legatoskylounge.com. tel. 03/5784-2121. Main dishes ¥1,800–¥4,500; set lunches ¥1,300–¥2,800; set dinners ¥3,800–¥5,800. Mon–Fri 11:30am–2pm; daily 5:30–10:30pm (last order). Station: Shibuya (Hachiko exit, 8 min.). From the station, walk straight up Dogenzaka; it will be on the right, just past the koban police box.
In addition to the recommendations here, there’s a branch of Maisen , offering tonkatsu, on the sixth floor of Hikarie (tel. 03/3486-2365). Gonpachi, on the 14th floor of E-Space Tower, 3–6 Maruyama-cho (tel. 03/5784-2011), offers Japanese fare at inexpensive prices.
d47 Shokudo ★★ VARIED JAPANESE — Since I’ve traveled to most of Japan’s 47 prefectures and grown fond of many regional dishes, I’m excited that I don’t have any farther to go than Shibuya to experience many of them. The menu can’t offer all prefectural dishes at once, of course, but the staff roams around Japan and continually brings back new recipes for the kitchen. You might, therefore, get to sample Oita Prefecture’s famous chicken, natto (fermented soybean) with Japanese plum sauce and ginger from Nagano, or Okinawan specialties that are foreign even to Japanese. Beer (like stout beer from Shizuoka) and sake from around Japan are also a treat. If you can, get a seat facing bustling Shibuya Station.
Hikarie, 8th floor, 2–21–1 Shibuya. tel. 03/6427-2303. Main dishes ¥600–¥1,000; set meals ¥1,400–¥1,780. Daily 11:30am–2:30pm and 6–10pm (last order). Station: Shibuya (east gate, 1 min.).
Uobei ★ SUSHI — Genki Sushi is a wildly successful chain of conveyor-belt sushi restaurants, with branches throughout Japan, China (I first encountered them in Hong Kong), and the U.S. West Coast, but this one takes it up a notch by removing humans from the equation. Not completely, I guess, as a hostess delivers you to your assigned counter seat and there must be an army of cooks back in the kitchen making your order. But then it’s just you and your touch screen, available in English and other languages, making this a super-easy place to dine if you don’t speak Japanese. Simply place your order of sushi, add side dishes like miso soup or French fries, help yourself to the hot-water spigot and powdered tea, and voila! Your meal comes racing down a conveyor belt and stops right in front of you, with almost all plates costing just ¥108. It’s a bit eerie, and you have to wonder, is this the restaurant of the future?
2–29–11 Dogenzaka. www.genkisushi.co.jp/en. tel. 03/3462-0241. Main dishes ¥108. Daily 11am–midnight. Station: Shibuya (Hachiko exit, 6 min.). From the station, walk straight up Dogenzaka until you get to Mos Burger (on your right) and then turn right.
Ninja Akasaka ★ VARIED JAPANESE — At this themed restaurant, diners enter the secret world of the ninja as soon as they step inside the darkened entrance, where costumed waiters appear out of nowhere to lead the hungry through a labyrinth of twisting passageways to private dining nooks. The English-language menu, written on a scroll, offers a la carte dishes like sweet-and-sour pork, salmon grilled with saikyo miso, roast lamb with Korean flavoring, and various sushi, soups, and salads. But most people go with one of the set dinners like the shabu-shabu course (there are also vegetarian courses). As the meal winds down, on most nights a roaming ninja will drop by to entertain with a variety of magic acts that are darn near impossible to figure out (tipping is up to you). Although I admit Ninja may be corny, the food is good, the intimate dining venues are great for couples and groups, and the staff is beyond reproach. For families with kids, this place is tough to beat (see the website, however, for details and restrictions). Reservations are a must.
Akasaka Tokyu Plaza, 1st floor, 2–14–3 Nagata-cho. www.ninjaakasaka.com. tel. 03/5157-3936. Main dishes ¥1,500–¥6,800; set dinners ¥5,700–¥20,000. Mon–Sat 5–10:30pm (last entry); Sun and holidays 5–9:45pm. Station: Akasaka-mitsuke (1 min.). In the candy-cane-striped building, below the Akasaka Excel Tokyu Hotel.