The 38 Essential Tokyo Restaurants
From hand-cut noodles at a legendary 130-year-old soba shop to a modern, Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant serving foie gras and fried chicken, here’s where to eat in Tokyo
by Yukari Sakamoto and Robbie Swinnerton
(The list here is sightly truncated from the original as it contains some non restaurant entires, it includes only 30 entries.)
For a rejuvenating start to the day indulge with a Japanese breakfast at Yakumo Saryo. Designed by architect Shinichiro Ogata, the teahouse is a tranquil space offering a morning of peace and mindfulness. The asacha (morning tea) set breakfast includes a variety of teas, porridge, fish, pickles, miso soup, and wagashi (confections) to finish. Reservations are required.
Kozue has some of the best views in the metropolis from the 40th floor of the iconic Park Hyatt Tokyo, a view made famous in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Chef Nobuhiro Yoshida sources seafood directly from fishermen, who send him photos or videos of their catch while they’re still out at sea so that selections arrive the same day to the restaurant. Seasonal sashimi is presented over a bowl of crushed ice and wagyu beef hot pot arrives on exquisite tableware. Elevate the meal with a flight of sake from the impressive list.
There’s no shortage of soba specialists in Tokyo, but few manage to create noodles quite as flavorful and satisfying as those at Tamawarai. Each batch is made from scratch — the dough mixed, rolled, and cut by hand — and much of it with buckwheat the restaurant helps to grow. The side dishes, such as soba miso and the wonderfully creamy yuba (tofu skin), are prepared with equal care. Tamawarai does not accept reservations, so despite the less-than-convenient location in a residential neighborhood between Shibuya and Harajuku, you will invariably find yourself standing in line for up to an hour to get in.
No visit to Tokyo is complete without exploring a depachiku — the food halls found on the basement levels of most department stores. Isetan in Shinjuku can’t be beat for gourmet glamor, with local wagashi (Japanese confections) arranged alongside the patisseries of Sadaharu Aoki, Jean-Paul Hévin, and Pierre Hermé. Have a light meal at the in-house open kitchen or take a bento up to the roof garden.
Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa’s decision to move Den from its iconic Jimbocho address has paid off in spades. The restaurant claims two Michelin stars and the top spot in Asia on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The cooking remains innovative and satisfying, incorporating audacious, humorous ideas into Japan’s highly formalized kaiseki tradition. Expect foie gras in your appetizer and ants in your salad, along with his signature Dentucky Fried Chicken.
Grillmaster Takashi Imai’s namesake yakitoriya is large, sleek, and contemporary. All the seats look in on his spacious open kitchen, so you can watch him in action over the main charcoal pit. Besides his excellent chicken skewers, Imai usually offers a list of premium meats, such as French pigeon. There’s also a serious selection of grilled vegetables from his second grill, plus a substantial list of natural wine.
The new generation of sake enthusiasts gather at Gem by Moto to enjoy innovative, small-batch, limited-edition regional brews with intense flavors and unique characteristics. Manager Marie Chiba knows all the best young brewers — who are also responsible for the graffiti covering her walls — and she has her own cellar where she matures the sake they make especially for her. Another major draw is her extensive and creative food menu. Gem may be a bit off the beaten path, but reservations are essential.
Nowhere in Tokyo serves tonkatsu (breaded deep-fried pork) with the quality and sophistication of Butagumi, set in a 60-year-old, two-story, freestanding traditional house. Here, you dine on premium cutlets — made from your choice of a couple dozen regional heirloom breeds — cooked a beautiful golden brown and served with a pyramid of finely slivered cabbage and thick, house-made Worcestershire-style sauce.
Yoshihiro Narisawa worked under Paul Bocuse, Frédy Girardet, and Joël Robuchon. But at his namesake restaurant, he fuses French haute cuisine with a profound understanding of Japanese ingredients that has resulted in a style uniquely his own. Serving brilliant left-field dishes such as soil soup (yes, really) and Okinawan sea snake broth, alongside superb langoustine and wagyu beef, he more than merits his two Michelin stars and spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Second-generation chef Daisuke Shimazaki serves traditional Edomae sushi at Sushi Yuu, located in a quiet residential area not far from the busy Roppongi district. While some high-end sushiya can feel stiflingly formal, more like a library or a church than a convivial restaurant, chef Shimazaki puts all of his customers at ease (in English, Russian, or Italian, as well as Japanese). The meal starts off with small seasonal bites such as grilled Pacific mackerel and simmered yellowtail before the parade of nigirizushi. Sushi Yuu is particularly famous for tuna, which Shimazaki sources from one of Toyosu Market’s top tuna vendors.
Chef Daisuke Nomura serves modern shojin ryori — vegetarian Buddhist cuisine — strategically locating his restaurant Sougo in the Roppongi district to appeal to the younger, international crowd who live and work in the neighborhood. The signature dish is sesame tofu, fried or grilled to bring out a silky texture. The menu also includes a myriad of vegetables from land and sea, along with traditional shojin ingredients like fu (wheat gluten) and yuba (soy milk skin). Tip: Diners wanting to learn more about Japanese food can take classes at Tokyo Cook, a cooking school located within the restaurant.
Muginae more than lives up to its English-language slogan: “Our passion for ramen makes the town a better place.” Everything about this modest counter on the southern edge of the city shouts quality: house-made noodles, free-range chicken broth, a blend of artisan soy sauces, and zero chemical flavor enhancements. It all adds up to a superb bowl of ramen that more than justifies the train ride out from the center of town and the inevitable wait up to an hour.
Akomeya is the place in central Tokyo if you’re looking to buy premium rice, foodstuffs from around Japan, kitchen essentials (including earthenware donabe pots), and designer tableware. But the best reason to visit is the casual in-store canteen, Akomeya Shokudo, which serves simple set meals of rice, miso soup, pickles, and main dishes like deep-fried fish and scallops. There’s also kakigori shaved ice, which can be topped with chocolate and rum raisins, as well as a variety of teas including a yuzu green tea and lemongrass hojicha roasted green tea.
Kaiseki, Japan’s ineffable, hyper-seasonal traditional cuisine, always tastes best in its hometown, Kyoto. This can be attributed to the water, which is softer than in Tokyo. Chef Yoshihiro Murata gets around this by shipping water from the ancient capital to the Akasaka branch of his renowned Kikunoi to ensure his dashi soup stock is always perfect. In this tranquil, secluded setting, it’s almost possible to imagine you have left the metropolis far behind. At lunchtime, Kikunoi also offers more accessible and affordable bento lunches.
Owner Kentaro Nakahara sources the finest wagyu and knows all the best cuts to grill over the charcoal burners set into your tabletop at Sumibiyakiniku Nakahara. Besides his seven-item yakiniku (grilled meat) tasting menu, don’t miss the beef “prosciutto,” the tartare, or his self-styled legendary grilled tongue (which must be reserved in advance). Yakiniku is always fun, but it’s rarely as chic, clean, and smoke-free — both from cigarettes and the grills — as it is here.
The former geisha district of Kagurazaka is worth exploring at any time, but especially as evening falls on the atmospheric narrow alleys. Even more so if you’ve booked yourself into Ishikawa for an extended, multicourse kaiseki dinner. Hideki Ishikawa’s impeccable cuisine, superb quality ingredients, and gracious welcome have won him three well-deserved Michelin stars and a host of admirers around the world.
Although Kyourakutei first made its name as a soba restaurant with noodles made in the time-honored te-uchi (hand-rolled and cut) tradition, it’s the excellent menu of sake, drinking snacks, and side dishes that makes the restaurant special. The tempura and grilled dishes are great, and the fish couldn’t be fresher.
At Tenko, vegetables and seasonal seafood from Tokyo Bay are battered and fried into tempura, a specialty of Tokyo. The restaurant is on the quiet backstreets of Kagurazaka in a former geisha teahouse. Second-generation chef Hitoshi Arai is a master at creating delicate and lacy tempura, serving each one as it comes out of the oil, and it’s worth trying some of the tempura with salt instead of dipping sauce to preserve the crispy covering. Part of the experience is listening to the tempura as it bubbles in the hot oil.
Built around a beautiful traditional garden, Tofuya Ukai’s low-rise complex of private rooms offers a glimpse of how Tokyo used to look and dine before the modern high-rise city developed. Multicourse meals include elaborate appetizers — like the specialty artisan bean curd served in hot pots in winter or chilled in summer — and culminate in servings of fish or meat grilled at the table.
Oniyanma is a casual stand-and-slurp handmade udon noodle shop that opens for breakfast. Purchase a ticket from the vending booth outside, then find a spot along one of the counters inside. The most popular order is bukkake cold noodles with a splash of tsuyu sauce, topped with chicken tempura and chikuwa (grilled fish cake) tempura, along with a handful of chopped green onions. Grated ginger and tenkasu (tempura bits) to garnish the noodles are on the counter for diners to apply as they like. (The vending machine options are entirely in Japanese, so for those who can’t read, the most popular noodles are the first option at the top left corner.)
Oden is Japan’s favorite wintertime comfort food, an aromatic hotpot of slow-simmered seafood, meat, and vegetables, usually washed down with plenty of sake or beer. Otako has been serving it this way for almost a century and attracts an eclectic clientele, from humble salarymen to Ginza hostesses dolled up in kimonos. Slide open the door, wait for a seat, then take your place at the long counter, watching the chefs at work over the steaming oden pans. At any time of year, Otako is a Tokyo classic.
Part of the ritual of riding a shinkansen (bullet train) is enjoying a bento and green tea (or sake if you like), while taking in the view. Located inside of Tokyo Station, Ekibenya Matsuri offers about 170 regional ekiben (“eki” for station and “ben” short for bento box) brought in from throughout Japan, an excellent chance to enjoy a range of regional Japanese flavors. The colorful selection includes rice topped with sashimi, wagyu beef, or yakitori grilled chicken skewers, and there is even a gyutan beef tongue bento that contains a warming device activated by a pull-string, allowing you to enjoy a hot meal on your journey. The shop opens at 5:30 a.m. for anyone catching an early train.
As you explore the tranquil, traditional backstreets of the low-rise Nezu district, Kamachiku makes an ideal stopping point. The restaurant serves premium udon (wheat) noodles, kneaded and cut by hand Osaka-style, in a converted century-old red-brick storehouse overlooking a small garden. If you want to settle in, you’ll find a good selection of sake and side dishes.
Soba is the traditional noodle in Tokyo, and nowhere is that heritage preserved better than at Kanda Matsuya. Founded 130 years ago and housed in superb wooden premises, it’s a living legend. There’s a small menu of side dishes to go with sake, but here it’s all about the noodles, which are rolled and cut by hand in-house by the master’s son.
At the Blind Donkey (co-owned by chef Shinichiro Harakawa), Chez Panisse alum chef Jerome Waag serves a seasonal menu based on products sourced directly from organic farmers and purveyors from throughout the country. The options typically fall under bistro cuisine like grilled yellowtail and Hokkaido grass-fed beef. Friendly staff can answer questions about the produce and the natural wine list. The teishoku (set lunch) on Thursdays and Fridays includes a colorful variety of vegetables.
Housed in a classic low-rise building in a traditional neighborhood, Imahan is one of Tokyo’s oldest and best loved purveyors of beef cuisine. Shabushabu, sukiyaki, teppanyaki, and steak are all prepared and served with old-school refinement and expertise. Book yourself into one of the private rooms for an extended omakase feast. Just choose what provenance and grade of wagyu you want, then relax and let the kimono-clad waitstaff pamper you.
From your place at the nine-seat wooden counter, watch as veteran master Tetsuya Saotome prepares perfect pieces of tempura. Every bite of seafood or vegetable is served direct from the deep-frying wok to your plate. The matsutake pine mushrooms in autumn are especially memorable. The location is obscure but well worth the taxi fare.
Tokyo’s oldest onigiri shop, Yadoroku, dates back to 1954 when “white rice was a luxury item” according to their website. The simple menu consists of about 18 savory fillings such as ikura, tsukemono, and grilled salmon served with miso soup. The shop has two tables and counter seats with a great view of the ingredients, which are displayed like seafood at a sushi counter. Third-generation Yosuke Miura personally serves each onigiri as it is made, presenting it on a gorgeous woven bamboo tray, while traditional koto music plays in the background. The restaurant is the perfect stop near Sensoji temple in the historic Asakusa district and the colorful Kappabashi kitchenware district.
Nowhere serves unagi (freshwater eel) like Obana. The recipe for its kabayaki — fillets of eel that are steamed, charcoal grilled, and basted with a thick, rich, sweet-savory glaze — dates back to the times of the shoguns. Expect hour-long lines (especially on weekends) for the pleasure of sitting on a hard floor (thin cushions provided) at low communal tables, with a further wait while they dispatch the eel and slowly cook it to order. The anticipation is worth it, though. Obana’s unagi is widely agreed to be the best in the city.
It’s no secret Tokyo has some of the best French cuisine outside of France, partly because local chefs study with the world's best, as Shinobu Namae at L’Effervescence did with Michel Bras and Heston Blumenthal. The restaurant has built a strong following with its use of premium produce, innate seasonal sensibility, and clear pride in good service, not to mention its tranquil location. Pro tip: Lunch is an especially good value.
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