Travel

It's Goto Time

Bar Goto owner and star bartender Kenta Goto shares his favorite Tokyo drinking dens
Kenta Goto
Photo: Lizzie Munro/Tasting Table

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"I stole this from my mother," Kenta Goto says sheepishly as he pours maple-hued umeshu, a sticky, sweet Japanese plum liqueur—and DIY hobby among Japanese grandmas—into a glass. He serves it as a digestif alongside pans of okonomiyaki (savory Japanese pancakes) shivering with bonito and elegant martinis dimpled with pink sakuras at his new bar, Bar Goto, in New York City.

After making a name at the legendary Pegu Club in 2007 and winning the prestigious Spirited Award for American Bartender of the Year back in 2011, Goto finally has a bar to call his own. The same artistry and restraint the Tokyo native brought to the masterful, Japanese-inflected drinks he shook up at Audrey Saunder's Soho cocktail den also reign here at the three-month-old bar but with a little more playfulness.

"There are always some people who come to see me and try my drinks, so there is a trust," Goto says about experimentation. "A customer sips drinks and that little smile or a nod they make—that's the excitement. That gives me a reason to keep making something good."

Goto's classic gin fizz is sloshed with creamy Calpico, a Japanese fermented yogurt drink, and The Improved Shochu Cocktail cheekily combines hop liqueur with barley shochu and aged gin. Plus, the chef is mixing things up by throwing three types of cheese into the pancakes, essentially creating a Japanese grilled cheese. You're getting Goto's version of Japan dropped down on the Lower East Side, from the old-school, heavy wood slat-covered front inspired by a neighborhood in Kyoto to his grandmother's supposedly 100-year-old kimono hanging above neat little tables.

So, naturally, when we asked Goto for his tippling haunts in Tokyo, he had his own idea of must-hit bars. His list of favorites steers clear of better-known places like super-cool speakeasy Bar High Five and zeroes in on offbeat, insider spots.

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Golden Gai: This narrow corridor just a few minutes from Shinjuku Station is crammed with nearly 200 tiny bars, each with its own schtick. You'll find a hospital-themed bar, complete with bartenders dressed like nurses and medicine-themed cocktails, or CD-stacked indie music bars. Some have been in operation since the 60s and have a strict regulars-only policies, while others are more welcoming. "I don't have any particular spot in the Golden Gai, but I like the whole ambiance in the district. You don't see that in New York at all," Goto says. "Everything is develop[ing] in Tokyo, so you start losing this sort of good, old Tokyo." Here, the good old days live on.
Goto's go-to drink: A giant frosty mug of whichever beer is on draft or a whiskey highball. "It's becoming a bit popular in Japan—even my mother started drinking highballs," Goto says.

Maduro Bar: "This is a really hip hotel lounge," Goto says. "You can tell by the way people dress, like Gossip Girl." The sprawling ultra-luxe bar off in the chic Roppongi Hills draws Jiro-bound tourists, deal-closing businessmen and diplomats from nearby embassies, offering them a wide selection of cigars and high-end whiskey served in fancy Baccarat tumblers or "something that I can't throw into a dishwasher," Goto says with a laugh. Bonus: Once you've downed your drink, you can take in the best view of the city.
Goto's go-to drink: Gin and tonic or Scotch. "Definitely not a mug of beer," Goto jokes.

Hostess bars: Since Tokyo is home—well, technically, neighboring Chiba is—Goto isn't immune to drinking with the parents. "My father likes to take me to those hostess bars, since he's in the kimono business, and a lot of his clientele are high-end hostess bar owners," Goto explains, referring to the popular social clubs for the wealthy (and lonely), where guests pay for drinks and conversations with attractive young ladies (if you're intrigued, you should watch this great documentary on the subject). Here, servers offer a slightly old-fashioned but popular drink: watered-down whiskey. "It's 80s-Japanese mind-set," Goto says. "Not many people sip whiskey straight, so they add water to make it palatable for my father's generation."
Goto's go-to drink: Whatever Dad is drinking, like whiskey water, as the drink is called, or shochu mixed with oolong tea.

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