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.