Here's the thing: Absolutely no one should skip sushi or ramen in Tokyo. But once you've tasted plentiful noodles and pristine fish straight from the source, direct your eyes and appetite toward the city's other gems. Some are local delicacies, others aren't traditionally Japanese, but all are beloved in this city that has elevated eating and drinking to an art form. Here are five of Tokyo's oft-overlooked dining options and where to find them.
① Tea & Wagashi
Since tea is served with most meals, it's worth seeking out a dedicated specialist for tea and wagashi, or traditional Japanese sweets. Higashiya, a modern tea parlor in Ginza, serves exquisite Japanese confections alongside a variety of green teas, from matcha to gyokuro. Pro tip: Most go for the steeped leaves, but Higashiya also offers excellent cocktails, like house-infused shochu with seasonal ingredients.
A Japanese culinary institution akin to tapas in Spain, yakitori roughly translates to "grilled chicken." Bird Land, a Michelin-starred yakitori joint in Ginza, tends to get the rooster's share of foreign press, but where you really want to go for all things grilled over coal is Ranjatai, a Jinbōchō destination with its own Michelin star and a surprisingly affordable omakase option. Chef Hideyuki Wadahama, formerly of Bird Land, serves everything from gizzard to breast to spherical egg yolks, and uses only Hinai-Jidori chickens, a breed prized for its deep flavor.
After chomping on ramen and wandering around downtown Ginza for a couple hours in an attempt to find bars to drink, we made our way 2 miles north to Chiyoda-ku where we had reservations at Ranjatai (1 Michelin star). Chef/owner Hideyuki Wadahama, who came from BirdLand, operates the small Yakitori restaurant with his son. To be honest, I was the least excited about this meal as I wasn't sure what to expect. After the first bite, however, I knew this was a special place. #ranjatai #yakitoro
③ Japanese Breakfast
Many Americans are accustomed to starting the day with pancakes and eggs, but traditional Japanese breakfasts are far more savory. Book a stay at a ryokan, or a traditional Japanese inn that maintains customs like futon bedding and tatami floor mats, and wake up early (hello, jet lag!) to sample an assortment of small, seasonal dishes. Ryokan breakfasts might include miso soup, steamed rice, pickled veggies, seaweed and grilled salmon. We are partial to the spread at Tokyo's new modern luxury ryokan, Hoshinoya.
If you’re planning to splurge on one meal in Tokyo, Yakiniku Nakahara is the place to do it. On the ninth floor of a Chiyoda building sits meat master Kentaro Nakahara’s Wagyu temple, where he offers à la carte and tasting menus dedicated to yakiniku, or grilled meat. This is true Wagyu at its finest. Pro tip: Call in every favor you have (a luxury hotel concierge can be invaluable here) to try to secure one of the coveted front counter seats, where the master himself will prepare your meal. Otherwise, you will be grilling your own beef over charcoal.
Japanese chefs have improved some of our American dishes, adding their own unique takes on Western favorites like pancakes. At any given time, a line snakes out of Shiawase no Pancake, an Osaka-based chain with a location in Tokyo's Omotesandō neighborhood. With a texture similar to a soufflé, these puffed griddle cakes are ethereally light and just barely sweet, served with whipped manuka honey butter and a bit of caramel syrup. You’ll never think of a pancake in the same way again.
The fruit in Japan will blow your mind. You’ve probably at some point seen the $300 melons delicately wrapped like birthday presents, and if you’re afforded the opportunity to try one, you’ll understand their splendor. Many Japanese department stores sell pricey fruit, but the city’s most famous and oldest shop dedicated to fancy fruit is Sembikiya, a local chainlet. Pro tip: At Tsukiji's wholesale fruit market, that same bunch of $65 grapes runs only $18, making it a great place to indulge on a budget.
⑦ Single-Subject Restaurants
Unlike the U.S., where more is usually more, a unique array of hyper-focused Tokyo restos specializes in one item or ingredient, exclusively selling a single type of white bread, for example, or flavoring each and every dish with persimmon. Eel fans (you know who you are) will want to drop by one of Ginza’s two Hyoutanya locations, where locals queue at lunchtime for some of the city’s best, inexpensive grilled unagi, or freshwater eel. Hyoutanya’s Kansai-style unagi comes lacquered with a sweet soy sauce and is served atop a box filled with steamed white rice.
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