Tokyo has a lot to offer to visitors, but in my opinion the best thing the city has going for it is the food. There is so much variety in Japanese cuisine, be it traditional or their own take on western food. The best thing is that if you know where to go, you will be treated with a quality meal and excellent service every time.
I have compiled a list of 09 of my favourite restaurants in Tokyo, covering 9 different types of Japanese food. These may not necessarily be the “best of the best” or even “must-do” places, but they are my recommendations based on positive experiences.
01) Japanese Curry – Curry Onion – Takadanobaba
Curry is one of the most popular fast foods in Japan – there are several chains throughout the country, and quite a few individual restaurants. While some of the chains offer really good curry (Go! Go! Curry comes to mind) the best ones are usually the tiny restaurants with their own unique roux. One such place is “こだわりの手作りカレー Onion” or simply “Curry Onion” near the Takadanobaba station in Shinjuku district. Their sauce is, as you can guess, based on simmered onions, and it is delicious. The restaurant is tiny – just a bar with 5 or 6 seats – and you will come out smelling like onions. But it is worth it, believe me!
02) Ramen – Tenkaippin – Ikebukuro
If you think you have had good Japanese ramen outside Japan, think again. Even the most authentic restaurants outside Japan will seldom make a proper tonkotsu (pork bone soup) based ramen. This is possibly because they are afraid to use the main ingredient of great tonkotsu ramen, due to unsubstantiated fear and ignorance in the west – pork fat, and lots of it.
Tenkaippin specializes in extra thick tonkotsu soup ramen, which keeps you full for hours and has a natural umami taste that is only experienced with a proper broth. Several ingredients can be added, and you can even request a thicker soup base. They have several locations, but the one in Ikebukuro is the biggest, with full service staff.
03) Wagyu Beef Steak – Steak House Satou – Kichijoji
Japan is famous for their high grade beef, which comes from the Wagyu breed of cattle. The most famous is probably from the Kobe region (“Kobe Beef” itself has become a brand, but that is essentially meaningless) but high grade Wagyu beef can be had at a fraction of the price at places like Satou.
They have a meat shop downstairs, and a tiny restaurant upstairs, where you can experience Teppanyaki beef steak at a fairly reasonable price. The more you spend, the more fatty (and better tasting) your steak will be.
04) Soba Noodles – Soba Kurumaya – Ikebukuro
Although not nearly as popular with local Japanese as ramen, soba noodles are a more traditional Japanese food, and more of a delicacy. That is why, when you have traditional soba noodles, you should go to a place that specializes in hand crafted noodles and delicate flavours.
Soba Kurumaya is such a place. Their noodles and hand-rolled from buckwheat, and shredded by hand. The flavours are about as traditional and authentic as it gets. Note that this may also mean that one day’s visit might be slightly different from the next. I highly recommend that all visitors to Japan try soba noodles (preferably the cold form “zaru-soba”) at least once.
05) Unagi – Izuei Honten – Ueno
Unagi is another extremely old and traditional Japanese dish, coming from the Osaka region. This particular restaurant is one of the first of its kind in Tokyo – it is over 260 years old!
The service is top notch – you will be treated like a king whether you are sitting at a table, or in your very own tatami dining room. If you have never had unagi before, it is slow roasted Japanese freshwater eel. Since the eel is such a fatty fish, the flavours and texture are very rich and bold.
06) Sushi – Sushi Dai – Tsukiji
If you want the ultimate in sushi, there is no better place than Tsukiji. This is where most of Tokyo’s fresh seafood makes its way into the city. Therefore, several sushi restaurants have popped up in the area, where they serve fish that is literally hours old.
The only downside? If you don’t get there early enough (we’re talking 5-6am), you can expect to wait 2 hours or more for a seat. But believe me, it is absolutely worth it. My recommendation is to order an “omakase” set instead of ordering individual pieces. In other words, you are letting the chef choose what to serve. Usually this means they will serve the best and most fresh sushi possible!
寿司大 – Tsukiji – Google Maps
07) Tonkatsu – Katsukura – Shibuya
Tonkatsu is probably the least traditional food item on this list, but believe me, it’s still very Japanese! Originally taken from the Austrian dish weinerschnitzel, the best tonkatsu uses high grade pork, fried in pure lard. This gives it a deep, crispy texture rather than a slimy greasy texture you’d get if vegetable oil was used.
Katsukura is actually based in Kyoto, but they have some locations in Tokyo as well. Unfortunately, most of the Tokyo locations are located in department stores, so you will not get the full experience of eating in such an interesting atmosphere as you’ll find in their Kyoto locations.
Nonetheless, the food is just as good. You grind your own toasted sesame seeds, which releases the flavour and aroma. From there, you can choose from a couple different sauces to dip the tonkatsu into. Unlimited fragrant barley rice, cabbage, and pickles are provided.
08) Izakaya/Yakitori – Torigen – Shinjuku
Izakayas are Japanese style pubs which specialize in serving beer and snacks, particularly yakitori (flame grilled chicken). The best of these that I have come across is Torigen, which specializes in chicken so much that they offer chicken from different regions of Japan. There are a seemingly infinite number of choices, from regular chicken meat, to cartilage, to gizzards and hearts. My personal favourite, and the reason I keep going back, is the Chicken Tataki dish. Tataki is only seared on the outside for a short time, leaving the inside of the cut very rare. This gives it an interesting flavour and texture, and can probably only be done with extremely high quality meat. For a unique experience, definitely check it out!
09) Hamburg – France Tei – Shibuya
Another extremely un-traditional yet popular Japanese food is “Hamburg”. Instead of frying up steaks, it is first ground into a patty, then served on a sizzling platter with sides and sauce (usually demi glace). This is an interesting way to experience a Japanese take on pure western food, and a way to enjoy local ‘junk food’. It is commonly found at fast food and family restaurants, but France Tei offers slightly more ‘upscale’ dishes with various sauces, and they use high quality sirloin beef in their patties – with no filler!