There’s never been a better time for dining in Tokyo, a staggering megalopolis with nearly 200,000 restaurants to serve the 9.2 million souls that reside in the city’s 23 central wards alone. A broad array of cuisine is represented – everything from speciality restaurants serving a single dish such as tonkatsu, to refined regional Chinese cuisine, and some of the tastiest French food you’ll ever have. Traditional ‘mom-and-pop’ joints nestle amongst contemporary places which keep the vibe completely Japanese whilst also managing to incorporate outside influences. Whether you’re a hipster looking for a third-wave coffee stand, or a high-roller ready to drop a small fortune on sushi and kaiseki, you’ll never go hungry in the Japanese capital.
November 20th, 2019
Hidden kaiseki cult classic
Kuroiwa may just be the best kaiseki (a seasonal menu with set amount of courses) restaurant in Tokyo that you’ve never heard of. Located in a beautifully restored Japanese house, it’s often fully booked six months in advance. Fans love chef Hiroshi Kuroiwa’s explication of Japanese food culture almost as much as his thoughtful seasonal cuisine which includes dishes such as rice cooked with a rich turtle broth in winter, or tofu made from broad beans with fresh tofu skins in spring.
Children are welcome in the private rooms and Kuroiwa also offers a kid’s kaiseki course – an extremely rare find!
New kid in town
The classic French cuisine at Mandarin Oriental Tokyo’s Signature restaurant has received a contemporary makeover thanks to rising-star chef, Luke Armstrong, who recently took the helm as the restaurant’s Chef de Cuisine. A veteran of international kitchen’s including Oud Sluis, The Ledbury and Bacchanalia, he combines an intensity of flavor with precision and finesse. Armstrong specializes in dry-ageing and shows off his skills in signature dishes such as crispy skinned golden-eye snapper with sauteed leeks and caviar, or roasted A5 wagyu beef fillet served with white asparagus and lily buds in a Madeira sauce.
The lunchtime prix fixe menus represent great value.
Tendon with a taste of old Tokyo
The Portuguese may have invented tempura but the Japanese perfected it. Tendon, a dish of tempura slathered in sweet-savoury sauce and served over rice, is Tokyo’s own local twist, thought to have come about in the 1830s. At tempura specialist Tenko, hidden along the cobblestone streets in the former geisha district of Kagurazaka, chef, Hiroshi Arai, takes a more refined approach with prawns and vegetables sheathed in a whisper-thin batter and drizzled with a light sauce.
The tendon is only available at lunchtime and you'll need to book in advance.
The eel experience
The speciality on offer at this venerable restaurant is the Kanto-style kabayaki cooking of freshwater eel (unagi) that is first broiled and then steamed, before being grilled over bincho-tan charcoal and dipped several times in a sweetened soy-based sauce. Rumour has it that Yamanochaya has been using its own secret sauce –like a sourdough’s mother– ever since opening in 1849 and during World War II when Tokyo was being bombed, the owners safeguarded it in the basement.
Yamanochaya is tucked away inside the grounds of Sanno Hie Shrine. Look for the entrance opposite Hibiya High School.
Maybe you’ll get lucky
As any shokunin (sushi artisan) will tell you, the key to the craft lies in more than just sourcing pristine seafood, it’s about striking the perfect balance of flavors, textures and temperatures while tailoring the whole experience to each guest. In that respect, chef, Takaaki Sugita, is the perfect host and that’s probably why it’s so hard to secure a booking at the 13-seat Sugita. He employs a range of traditional preparations –salting, marinating, and pickling– all developed during the 1800s, whilst also introducing subtle innovations. And although he specializes in maturing fish, his most famous signature is the creamy ankimo (monkfish liver) pate steeped in sweetened soy sauce and dabbed with wasabi – a wonderful accompaniment to sake.
It’s almost impossible to book without using a hotel concierge or online reservation service.
Bricolage Bread and Co.
Loaves with local flavor
Run by chef, Shinobu Namae, from the two-Michelin-starred L’effervescence, all the loaves and pastries at Bricolage Bread and Co. are made with Japanese wheat and spelt. If you’re pressed for time grab a buttery croissant and a cup of coffee from Norway’s Fuglen Coffee Roasters to-go at the café. But if you have more time, open sandwiches with seasonal toppings such as home-cured ham and egg can be found in the adjacent dining space which is decked out with vintage furniture procured from an old Japanese inn. Wash it all down with a glass of natural wine or Japanese craft beer.
Photo: Lim Chee Wah
Go early in the day to be sure to snag a pain au chocolat.
Shaking up the sushi world
The ‘M’ in the recently opened Sushi M stands for mariage, the French (and Japanese) expression which means a harmonious pairing of food and beverages. Sushi chef, Michimasa Nakamura, of Sushi Shin teamed up with the former head sommelier of Narisawa restaurant, Yoshinobu Kimura, to create a unique sushi experience where each course is matched with something rare and delicious from the restaurant’s impressive wine and sake cellar. Nakamura’s spin on sushi eschews soy sauce in favour of house-made salts, fermented fish guts, Japanese garums (fish sauce) and miso waters to provide accents that allow the natural flavor of the seafood to shine, all paired magnificently with wine and sake. Side dishes are endlessly creative including a succulent Japanese tiger prawn afloat a broth flavoured with saffron.
There’s a tea-pairing course for non-drinkers.
The SG Club
Cocktail history in the making
Bartender, Shingo Gokan, returned from Shanghai’s Speak Low and Sober Company to his hometown in order to launch The SG Club in Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya ward. The bar’s concept re-imagines the story of Japan’s first diplomatic delegation to the U.S., when 77 samurai visited New York City in 1860, into a space is divided between two bars (SG stands for ‘Sip and Guzzle’). Guzzle, on the ground floor, is a casual number with distressed grey walls, gold-framed mirrors and a beautifully back-lit bar with wooden fixtures. The downstairs Sip resembles a classy speakeasy with drinks such as the Wagyu Mafia Fashioned made with whisky and flavoured with A5 wagyu suet and organic raw honey.
You can also get a traditional shoe shine while you drink at the downstairs Sip.
The definitive old-school Tokyo cafeteria
The Tsujiki fish market may have gone but there are still many good reasons to visit the area. Takeno, which dates back to before World War II and epitomizes an old-school Tokyo shokudo (cafeteria), is one of them. Here, you’ll find all the casual classics such as sashimi, grilled fish set lunches and seafood tempura, all made with fresh ingredients and served in generous portions with a complete lack of pretence (you may even have to get your own water). The cheap and cheerful atmosphere is worth a trip alone, but the deep-fried breaded oysters (only available in autumn and winter) and seasonal fish simmered in sweetened soy sauce are also seriously delicious.
Go early to beat the lunch rush.
Hipster breakfasts and killer caneles
Everybody loves Path, something you’ll soon discover when you try to get a table at this no-reservations joint in Yoyogi Hachiman. Once in, you’ll be rewarded with breakfast options including buttermilk biscuits served with a lighter take on sausage gravy; a neatly constructed katsu-sando filled with breaded pork cutlet; homemade muesli with fresh fruit; as well as some of the spongiest, springiest canelés in the city. The simple interior has a hipster vibe to match the clientele.
Photo: Eunji Nam
Arrive before they open to avoid a long wait.
Relaxed and refined dining
As the name suggests, Crony is a place for friends. When four alums of the triple Michelin-starred Quintessence joined forces to open a restaurant, they wanted to create a homely atmosphere that also delivered a relaxed fine-dining experience. Chef Michihiro Haruta’s nomadic past (Ledoyen, Kadeau, Maeemo and Saison) evinces itself in modern cuisine that combines Japanese seasonal ingredients in an original way. On-point wine service by Kazutaka Ozawa reinforces the culinary narrative of the tasting menu.
Crony turns into a wine bar with à la carte service after 21:00.
Isetan Department Store
The ultimate depachika
Isetan’s depachika (basement food hall) is the happiest place on earth for culinary fanatics. First established in 1933, the vast and gleaming space comprises a high-end supermarket (yes, there are square watermelons and $300 cantaloupes for sale), a mind boggling array of boutique pastry shops, vendors selling carefully prepared foods, a handful of options for a sit-down meal and even a standing whisky bar (which, conveniently for day drinkers, opens at 14:00). During the summer you can also enjoy treats from the basement on the rooftop beer garden.
Avoid the food hall during holidays when the insane crowds make it feel a lot like a Saturday afternoon at Disneyland.
Natural wine izakaya
Among the many, many natural wine specialists in Tokyo, Bunon stands out for its cross-cultural take on the wine bar, combining a constantly changing list of funky bottles with interesting izakaya fare such as miso-marinated foie gras terrine; piquant celery pickles; and garlicky sautéed squid tentacles. Set into a refurbished Showa-era home, it’s slightly offbeat and oh-so-Tokyo.
Opt for an upstairs table overlooking the first floor.
Natural wines for day drinkers
Walking past no. 501 in Tokyo’s Aoyama district, you could be forgiven for mistaking the bar for a storage closet. The shop’s name is discreetly etched on the metal door and once inside you’ll find a tight but stylish space with brightly coloured grid-shaped wine racks which give the overall impression of being inside a wine-themed Tetris game. Behind a sliding glass door at the back of the store is a tiny boîte with 12 seats. The bar features around ten wine options by the glass and small plates including charcuterie or chicken terrine, or more substantial meals including lamb simmered in tomato sauce.
Choose a bottle from the shop and drink it at the bar for a modest corkage fee.