Tokyo is a mecca for traditional and modern foodies. The complete list of where to go to enjoy a perfectly delicious meal is almost overwhelming as there are far too many fantastic hotspots to choose from.
After living in Japan’s capital for 6 months, I realized that your best bets are sometimes hidden in alleys, only locals will know about them. Meanwhile Tokyo upholds a long list of Michelin-starred restaurants that are splurge-worthy for every traveling food lover. So here’s a list that combines both approaches, in random order. From Shinjuku to Ginza, you’ll get to taste the glory of tonkatsu, the art of sushi, the awesomeness of tempura, to the sweet and savory of sukiyaki.
PS. Two things to look out for as you are on the hunt for these good eateries: first, many restaurant names are written in Japanese, so try to remember them in kanji/hiragana characters before you head out the door. The menu will also be in Japanese, so try to speak slower in English (keywords: beef, chicken…learn them in Japanese before your trip.) Secondly, the easiest way to convert from yen to dollar is to cross off the last two digits (or zeros. For example: ¥5000 is approximately $50 bucks. That’ll make it easy for you to do the math quickly in your head. Xo, Wendy
Area: Shinjuku. Metro: Shinjuku Station
The one-star Michelin restaurant is bang for the buck during lunch hour with ¥900 while the dinner menu will start at ¥5000. Shinjuku Nakajima is located in the basement, and there will be a line of people waiting as the restaurant itself is quite small. The menu will offer sardines cooked in 5 different ways, including: sashimi, boiled, salt baked, fried and cooked in a pot (yanagawa/柳川). Sit at the bar to enjoy the chef’s performance while you chow down the best sardines you’ll ever taste!
Photo: Shinjuku Nakajima
Area: Shinjuku. Metro: Shinjuku Station
Hours: 11:00 am – 10:30 pm
One of the BEST ramens in Tokyo, hands down! It’s also a fun place to go, with lots of enthusiastic ramen makers behind the bar, yelling and shouting to welcome guests into the shop. Menya Musashi is hard to find, so follow your GPS religiously. When you enter, buy a ramen ticket from the vending machine first. Then stay in line, wait to be seated. This place’s ramen will win you with its soja soup base, a piece of juicy, perfectly marinated piece of pork, along with a marinated egg and bamboo shoots. You’ll walk outta there stuffed but without an ounce of regret.
Photo: Menya Musashi
3. 玉笑 (Tamawarai Soba)
5 Chome-23-3 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0001, Japan (map)
Area: Shibuya. Metro: Meijijingumae Station
Hours: Lunch 11:30am – 3:30pm, Dinner 6pm – 9:30pm. Saturday 11:30am – 8pm. Sunday 11:30am – 5pm
How can you come to Tokyo and not get your hands dirty with Michelin-starred soba? Buckwheat noodles are the perfect fix for any hot summer day, and this one is not too pricey! Take advantage of Tamawarai’s lunch menu priced at ¥7,560 while the dinner menu goes from ¥7,560 to¥9,720. The Tofu Soba is a crowd favorite, superblu cut, cooked, chilled and textured. The volume isn’t huge so you might want to order two a la cartes (¥2000 each) and try different flavors.
Area: Ginza. Metro: Ginza
Hours: Dinner 6pm – 11:30pm (except for Sundays). Closed in mid-August, late December – early January.
Even for those who have dined at Sukiyabashi Jiro (later on this list), they would argue that Yoshitake might just be serving the best sushi in the world. Call ahead of time to make your reservation, this three-star Michelin restaurant is art combined with respect for history and ingredients. Simplicity yet refined. It’s a one chef’s showdown with a relaxed atmosphere. During summertime, you’ll be spoiled by a uni pudding, which is swapped for a monkfish liver during winters. Dinner set menu is ¥24,840, about ¥5000 less than Sukiyabashi Jiro.
5. 吉祥寺 いせや総本店 (Iseya Kichijoji)
Area: Kichijoji. Metro: Kichijōji
Hours: 12pm – 10pm
Yakotori (grilled or skewered chicken) is another must-eat Japanese cuisine travelers can’t miss in Tokyo. Sure, you can head over to any izakaya and get your little plates of skewers. But Iseya Kichijoji is a local’s favorite and the experience of being in a packed restaurant full of smoke oozing from the grill is an experience all on its own. The restaurant is so loved that local Japanese will stand outside and devour their skewers without a table, standing up. The menu will have many other items besides chicken: pork, beef, intestines, fish balls…etc.
6. Suju Dining Rokkaku
Tokyo Midtown, 9-7-4 Akasaka, Minato, Tokyo 107-6204, Japan (map)
Area: Minato. Metro: Roppongi Station
Hours: 6pm – 11pm
Not the easiest place to find, but when in Tokyo, you’ve gotta try the first one-star Michelin izakaya in town. Super low-key but serving incredibly delectable dishes (think Spanish tapa-style) of: raw-fish, shabu shabu (hot pot), fried kamonasu (eggplant), udon noodles…and many more. Chef’s Kyoto influence plays into the local flavors you wouldn’t find in izakayas in Tokyo. His respect for seasonal ingredients while serving each gastronomic plates fresh yet not over-the-top makes this a must-stop for any foodie on the road.
Area: Ginza. Metro: Ginza Station
Hours: Lunch 11:30am – 2pm, Dinner 5:30 – 8:30 (except for Saturdays)
If you’ve seen the film “Jiro Dreams Of Sushi” then you’re dying to get a seat at Sukiyabashi Jiro. The 3-star Michelin sushi restaurant has taught many chefs around the world that sushi is a form of art. In the film, Jiro’s dedicated commitment in making each sushi in gleaming excellence has audiences booking tickets to Tokyo and waiting to indulge at this helm of superior sushi. Each set menu starts from approximately ¥300,000. A two-star branch operated by Jiro’s son Takashi is situated in Roppongi Hills in Minato, Tokyo
Getting into the restaurant requires planning ahead. It only takes reservations on the first of each month, and the reservations are only for the following month (example: if you’d like to go in April, make sure to call on March 1st.) It’s best to have someone who speaks Japanese to make the booking, or going with a Japanese friend is ideal since the chef doesn’t speak English. Having a hotel concierge call for the booking is also a good back-up option but doesn’t always work.
Area: Asakusa. Metro: Tawaramachi Station
Hours: 11:30am – 9:30pm
After checking out the Asakusa Temple, which is a must-see for Tokyo first-timers, make a meal stop at Asakusa Imahan for sukiyaki (thinly sliced beef slow cooked in a pot) or shabu shabu (same concept as sukiyaki but with a more savory sauce than the sweet sauce in sukiyaki.) Lunch starts at ¥3600 with a traditional tatami setting. The restaurant is usually packed, but it’s worth the wait. If not, they also sell takeaway bento boxes. Set menu comes with appetizers, sashimi, raw eggs and impeccable service. If it’s your first time eating sukiyaki, the staff will show you how it’s done. Mainly, wait until the pot is hot, with a dash of oil, dip the meat on the hot pan for a few seconds, then dip the cooked meat into a separate bowl of sauce. So good.
Area: Asakusa. Metro: Asakusa
Hours: 11am – 8pm
Another great spot near Asakusa Temple is a half-century-old restaurant specializing in tempura (seafood or vegetables battered and deep-fried.) Aoi-Marushin is a vintage restaurant remaining popular among locals, known to batter and fry in sesame oil. Like many restaurants in Japan, you can buy takeaways on the first floor, near the entrance. The actual restaurant is located on the 2nd floor, serving lunch set menus at an affordable ¥1000 which comes with miso soup, udon noodles, a bowl of tempura and dipping sauces. You can also order a bowl of rice covered in a variety of tempura. This particular dish will make your mouth water just from the salivating smell of sesame oil. You’ve been warned!
Photo: 葵丸進 天ぷら
5-24-2 Sendagaya, Shibuya 151-0051, Tokyo, Japan. On the 14th floor of Takashimaya Times Square (map, website)
Area: Shinjuku. Metro: Shinjuku Station
Hours: 11am – 11pm
Originated as one of the best tonkatsu restaurants in Kyoto, Katsukura’s Tokyo branch is conveniently located in Shinjuku’s Takashimaya Times Square, where you’ll shop ’til you drop and a nice plate of crispy tonkatsu is all that will make the world a better place. For ¥2120, tonkatsu (breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet) at Katsukura comes with free rice refills and…wait for it…an English menu! The best part about tonkatsu is the cabbage, which the shredding technique is typically considered an art form, according to local Japanese. The set menu will also come with miso soup and pickled vegetables.
Photo: Facebook/名代とんかつ かつくら 京都三条
Area: Akasaka. Metro: Akasaka Station
Hours: 12pm – 3pm, 5pm – 11pm
The last name Murata in Japan’s culinary history is comparable to Adria in Spain or Keller in the U.S.. Except chef Yoshihiro Murata is the third-generation of a family name that is synonymous with one of the best restaurants in Kyoto inside a century-old ryotei – Kikunoi. Today, you can taste the Kyoto-inspired tradition, and artistic innovation at Kikunoi in Tokyo, near Akasaka station. The two-star Michelin restaurant serves kaiseiki-style food (traditional multi-course Japanese dinner) with a changing menu with the chef’s respect for and study of nature. You’ll notice that his travels to France will play an influential element in some of his plates. From cherry blossom sake, sashimi, seared-salmon, abalone, duck, bluefin tuna, eel, to lobster…the entire meal will leave an luscious imprint in your Tokyo journey.
Do you have any Tokyo restaurants to add to this list? Let us know in the comments.