Tokyo is quite likely the world’s ultimate dining destination. Tourists flood in from every which direction, often expecting something refined, elevated, if not Michelin-starred. Sure, those options are here (230 of them, in fact) and not hard to find. But this city’s excellence is a function of its failure to be boxed in; don’t come here for just one thing, when you can have all the things. Forget about that hot new omakase menu for a moment, and instead graze your way through some karaage or monjayaki at the izakaya hidden in the alleyway. Then hit the streets in search of what’s next. Here’s a trail map: our picks for the best places to eat like a local in Tokyo.
Onigiri Asakusa Yadoroku
Onigiri Asakusa Yadoroku, Tokyo’s oldest onigiri—or rice ball—restaurant, has a quaint, inviting charm. Behind a counter designed for eight diners, owner Yosuke Miura is hard at work sculpting his famous flavor bombs by hand. Surrounding him is a crowd of voracious diners, eager to gulp down the snack as fast as he can build them. Start with the the shrimp and miso onigiri, then see how far outside your comfort zone you’re willing to climb. This is a quick and easy snack stop for a small group of friends. Consider it an opening act for dinner and do the the main event elsewhere.
Asakusa Imahan is a massive, multi-leveled shrine to sukiyaki and shabu-shabu. Slip your shoes off, climb into a private booth, and heat up some top-quality meat. Asakusa Imahan excels in traditional sukiyaki, with impeccable, finely marbled beef that’s ready to hit the grill. Adding to the experience, you’ll sit cross legged on a tatami mat. Although servers are not often visible, they routinely check in, just to be sure you’re set.
Yakitori Imai is a cozy den with sliding-glass entry. Guests sit down at an L-shaped wooden bar as the restaurant’s namesake prepares his legendary chicken skewers—juicy, lightly charred morsels of delight. Yakitori is typically more about the flavor than the elegance, but here you get a solid serving of both. The ingredients here are ultra-high-quality, but the presentation remains instantly recognizable and reasonable prices encourage experimentation. Expect a lively bunch of food obsessives looking to try the chef’s upscale spins on yakitori, which include liver pate, farm-raised quail, truffles, and other affectations of French cuisine. If you’re going to veer toward the premium end of the menu, don’t sleep on the tender, lightly salted Kinta pork.
Karaage-ya Oshu Iwai
More of a food stall than a proper restaurant, Karaage-ya Oshu Iwai is an unbeatable option for on-the-go fried chicken in Tokyo. The secret to the karaage’s—fried chicken—success here is the optimal ratio of crispy breading to juicy meal. There’s also a wide range of finishes, including spicy, garlic fried, sweet, and soy-glazed. Orders are served right from the fryer in a small carton with toothpicks as utensils. Not sure where to start? Go for the Iwaii Bento, a crowd favorite.
Han no Daidokoro Kadochika
Han no Daidokoro Kadochika is a sleek lounge tucked into the fourth floor of the Dogenzaka Center Building. Inside, the wood appointments are inlaid with a circular metal thatch—the key indicator of yakiniku, or grilled meats. The name of the game here is wagyu from Yamagata, a prefecture second to none in its caliber of cattle-raising. Seared Yamagata melts in your mouth, leaving nothing but a trail of unctuous umami in its wake. Order the Yamagata Gyu Ittougai, a sampling of as many as six varieties of wagyu. Wash it down with ice-cold lagers: the perfect accompaniment to the seared beef.
Enter through a slatted wood door, pass under the noren curtains, and you’ll find yourself in Tempura Uchitsu, where the making of the batter is elevated to high art. With few words but deliberate actions, chef Takahisa Uchitsu works his magic; behind him, a wall-sized display of verdant forestry frames his every careful move. This is tempura, reimagined as ballet. Uchitsu is delicate in his preparation, working vegetables and proteins into his konabachi with the self-assuredness of a Premier Maître. A flimsy drinks menu leans heavy on France: a grand cru from Montrachet, a sumptuous Chablis. Gravitate toward the bubbles—no wine cuts through fat quite like Champagne.
Walk under a hanging nobori curtain, through a dimly lit vestibule, and into Shichifukujin Tamaki, an unpretentious parlor of soba and kaiseki that offers comfort food in a comfortable setting. The restaurant feels like a welcome respite from the rancor of Roppongi—in buckwheat noodle form. Here you’ll find a rather traditional approach to Tokyo dining, one that predates the days of extravagant tasting menus or boundary-pushing experimentation. So stick to the classics: soba, miso, and maybe sake or Sapporo.
Taiyaki Wakaba’s glass-encased kitchen is viewable from the street and bordered by a green awning. Inside, craftsmen crank out taiyaki, a traditional seafood dessert, as they’ve been doing so skillfully here for more than a century. Sea bream, red bean paste, and batter combine to form an unlikely confection. Molded into the shape of an actual fish, this afternoon snack strikes the perfect balance between salty, sweet, and savory. Most Americans have never heard of taiyaki; here you can discover firsthand what you’ve been missing.
You can spot Shichisai by its white brick façade and hungry crowd of ramen devotees queuing up outside. The noodles here are pounded and shaped from dough in front of your very eyes. It isn’t just impressive to watch; it makes for a profoundly more satisfying noodle that’s thick, chewy, and perfectly wavy. Don’t be afraid to pile on extra chashu, but if you’re craving something lighter, go for the hiyashi chuka, which features thinner noodles in a tomato-based broth.
A block-long queue leads up to Himitsudō’s bright red door, where thatched straw brooms dangle overhead. Through the threshold is a fast-paced shaved ice operation consisting of vintage machinery that allows staffers to crush the ice by hand. Himitsudō offers 132 syrups to top your shaved ice, along with seasonal varieties. Go for a familiar flavor, or take a chance on the Satsumaimo-Cream Caramel, which has sweet potatoes thrown into the mix. Come for a midday dessert; if you arrive in the late-afternoon, just before dinner, you can take advantage of the lull in the line.
Tamai Nihonbashi Honten
Tamai Nihonbashi Honten, an anago—or eel—destination, is a dense space with black-painted wood and a paper lantern hanging high overhead. Anago, or saltwater eel, is the star of the show here. And if you want to enjoy its full flavor potential, start with the hako-meshi; the signature preparation of Conger eel that’s been seared and basted in a warm paste of sugar-sweetened soy. If you’re traveling with seafood enthusiasts who want to experience an under-appreciated aspect of Japanese cuisine, this is the spot for them.
With unadorned concrete walls, Seirinkan, Tokyo’s original pizza hideaway, feels like it’s built inside a bunker. Susumu Kakinuma, the owner and pioneering pizzaiolo, cut his teeth in Naples, returning to his native land well equipped to roll some dough. Here he keeps the menu purposely simple, with just two pies: a traditional margherita and a cheese-less marinara. The crust bubbles and chars in small pockets, thanks to a short blast in the wood-fired oven, and holds a crisp exterior before revealing a satisfying underlying chew.
Kondo is hallowed ground for monja, a cook-it-yourself delicacy that isn’t so much a meal as it is an interactive experience. The restaurant doesn’t reinvent the style; rather, it merely provides the perfect environment in which to enjoy it. You’ll find higher-quality ingredients here, unlike many of the competing monjayaki destinations in Tokyo’s Tsukishima neighborhood. Think: thinly sliced beef and pork and fresh, plump shrimp, all paired with glasses of cold Japanese beer.
Tadashi Hosokawa is a soba whisperer, having earned a Michelin star for his Zaru-style preparation: thick buckwheat strings served alongside a smoky and salty tsuyu dipping sauce. At his pint-size restaurant, you can opt to enhance your soba with tempura or fried vegetable and dashi. The plate might appear minimal—even boring—but you’ll be wowed by the flavors and textures once you did in. It’s enough to inspire the endless queues that form every afternoon.
Tokyo is home to thousands of noodle shops. So how, exactly, do you set yourself apart in the world of ramen? First: patience. At Nakiryu, a Michelin-starred destination, it takes days to refine and condense the rich and unctuous broth before hand-pulled noodles and house-made sauces added. Top it off with tender roast pork so tender, and it’s no wonder why folks stand in two-hour queues just to taste it. If you’re willing to brave the line, try the tongue-tingling Spicy Tantanmen, a gritty orange broth with complex aromas and flavors.
Order like the locals, too, with Rosetta Stone.
By Brad Japhe © 2019 Condé Nast Traveler