Izakaya: Japan's Casual, Communal Drinking And Dining Style

You may be deeply familiar with some of Japan's most popular foods, from comforting ramen to your preferred type of sushi. And, when it comes to being a foodie destination, the East Asian island nation is definitely ranked highly with so many dishes being hard-to-come-by regional delicacies and many cuisines (like Itameshi) being especially unique to the country. However, when you're visiting Japan, it might be worth looking into where to get your food rather than what you plan on ordering.

Whether you're casually exploring Tokyo's dense alleyways or relentlessly Googling venues to enjoy some drinks and late-night bites in Japan, you're likely going to find yourself in front of an izakaya. These laid-back venues are a staple of Japan's drinking culture and are great meeting places for friends. So, whether you're looking to add to your list of must-see stops while in Japan or are interested in global drinking customs, you've come to the right place.

What is an izakaya?

If you're ever visiting Japan, it's definitely worth visiting an izakaya, whether it's a chain or an independent spot. These venues have become increasingly popular with tourists and for good reason.

According to Tokyo Cheapo, the Japanese characters for izakaya, 居酒屋, directly translate to "stay saké shop." This name lays out simply what an izakaya actually is: a place to enjoy your stay and drink plenty of alcohol. These establishments, like most places with plenty of alcohol, are usually quite lively. The seating areas can be filled with loud conversations, music, and even dancing. It's also common for cigarettes to be smoked inside, which adds to the party atmosphere.

Here, much of the menu consists of beer. You can order traditional Japanese pilsner-style draft beers, think iconic Sapporo or Asahi. If that's not your thing, shōchū and sake are also plentiful. However, if you're not a fan of casual drinking, don't worry. The main appeal of visiting an izakaya may actually be the food.

Here's what to order at an izakaya

While you may be thinking that an izakaya sounds just like a regular bar, that's not quite the case. In izakayas, customers are usually seated and enjoy plenty of different dishes, both Japanese and international cuisine. There are also often foods that are easily shared and split amongst friends and coworkers.

The dishes change based on whether the particular izakaya you're eating at is more modern and trendy or a more casual hole-in-the-wall spot. Most spots will at least have the staples, like edamame and gyoza, and they will typically be salty foods that pair great with beer. Ebi-mayo, Agedashi-tofu, and Karaage (Japanese fried chicken) are some dishes that are typically on izakaya menus. Some even showcase western classics, like pizza or french fries.

If visiting Japan is out of reach but izakaya menus sound like something too good to pass up, there are (thankfully) other ways to experience this laid-back drinking scene.

Where to find izakayas in the U.S.?

You can get traditional izakaya experiences in many of the major U.S. cities, like New York City and Los Angeles, which have plenty of options to choose from.

If you're on the East Coast, New York City's ROKC — an acronym for ramen, oysters, kitchen, and cocktails — is a great spot that is well-known in the city. They're possibly best known for their cheap, farm-to-table oysters and fun cocktails. While it may not be the most traditional izakaya experience, it is worth trying out.

If you're closer to Boston, you can also try hitting up Izakaya Ittoku. This joint doles out an experience you're more likely to find in Japan. With a beer and liquor menu full of Japanese classics and a big food menu with any type of Japanese food you can think of, this place is definitely a can't-miss spot.

Those in L.A. can enjoy KOCHI, a highly reviewed casual eatery where many recommend getting their udon. Noodles are commonly enjoyed in izakayas, and KOCHI makes them in-house. Further outside the city, Izakaya Hachi is raved about for a more unexpected dish, beef tongue. Whether you're an adventurous eater or just looking for reliable edamame, these joints and others are great options on the West Coast.