Travel

How to Navigate Tokyo's Restaurant Scene like a Local

10 insider tips from the Tokyo Fixer
A Professional's Guide to Eating in Tokyo
Photo: Maxime Guilbot via Flickr

In a city where who you know is the strongest form of culinary currency, Shinji Nohara could be Tokyo’s richest man. That’s why he’s known as the Tokyo Fixer.

Nohara is the guy who shows Anthony Bourdain where to dine when he’s in town. A couple of months ago, Nohara escorted Momofuku honcho David Chang around on an epic eating adventure that included everything from pristine sushi to the legendary steak sandwiches at Shima. You get the point.

With invite-only establishments and restaurants notorious for not serving foreigners, Tokyo’s dining landscape can seem daunting. But understanding how to navigate the city’s culinary scene like a local will help.

Here, Nohara offers 10 expert tips.

① Look for establishments that are either above or below street level—extra points if the venue is on a side street or back alley. Less-accessible places are often cheaper, meaning the owner can save on rent and spend on higher-quality ingredients.


 Avoid restaurants with flashing signs and pictures on the menu. On the flip side, if all you see is Japanese lettering, go with it.

 Smaller is better. In Tokyo, a 30-seat restaurant is considered large. Don’t be surprised to find that many offer 10 or fewer seats; those are your best bets. Small restaurants, which are usually family owned, will offer better food than their larger, likely corporation-backed counterparts. 


 In Japan, very few restaurants have websites, and even fewer accept reservations. Some of the best use Pocket Concierge or Voyagin, but since so few people in Tokyo speak English, it’s still wise to stay at a hotel with a great, well-connected concierge. They’ll help you score the more coveted reservations.

RELATED   Why You're Seeing More Japanese Chains Coming to the U.S. »

 Take cash. Many Tokyo restaurants, including those with three Michelin stars, don’t accept credit cards. ATMs aren’t always easy to find; if you need one, look for a 7-Eleven or post office.

 It’s likely you’ll want to eat ramen, and many ramen shops will require that you order and prepay (in cash) via a push-button machine. If you find yourself unable to decipher the all-Japanese buttons, just remember that the top-left button is usually the shop’s most famous dish. When in doubt, press that one.   

 

lunch

A post shared by masaaki komori (@cipher) on


 Always have a backup plan. Tokyo can be a tough city to navigate. It’s a rare foreigner who can read the language, making the simple process of even locating a restaurant akin to searching for Waldo without his hat. Buildings look similar; many establishments are tucked behind unmarked doors; restaurants may or may not be visible from the street. But there’s great food everywhere, meaning that even your second choice is likely to impress.

 In Japan, counter or bar dining is always the way to go when it’s available; you’ll land near the chef and enjoy a front-row seat to the action. Be sure to communicate with the chef, show an interest in what he or she is doing, and express satisfaction and enjoyment when you like what you’re eating. It’s likely you’ll receive a better meal just for putting in the effort.

 

A post shared by Wes Borland (@thewesborland) on


 Use this hand signal to alert your server that you’re done with your meal: Simply cross your right index finger over your left index finger to form an X. That’s the Japanese way of expressing, “Check, please!”

 Lines: Don’t be afraid of them. Japanese culture values patience, and locals have no problem queuing up for great food. If you see a line outside a restaurant, it’s likely something delicious lies within. In fact, pretty much all the great ramen restaurants will make you wait—most of the time, for about half an hour.

Around the Web

Get the Tasting Table newsletter for adventurous eaters everywhere