Regardless of whether you’re in Tokyo, Melbourne, LA or NYC, you just might find yourself entering a Japanese restaurant that calls itself am izakaya. They may use 3 kanji symbols, meaning stay-drink-place. For the Japanese version of a pub, those symbols are perfectly alright.
What’s an Izakaya?
The izakaya is a rather common drinking and dining place in Japan, although you can find these restaurants in lots of places around the world. It’s basically where people come in, usually after work, to relax after a hard day. It’s not really just a common bar, as it’s more like a special gastropub or a tapas bar. Here, you can pick from a wide variety of food items (usually Japanese, of course) along with sake, beer, whiskey, and even cocktails.
Some izakaya look like restaurants, but others look more like pubs. They can be part of massive chains, or small places with a single proprietor. The main thing is that the alcohol flow freely while the atmosphere is decidedly laidback. The food and beverages are generally unpretentious.
A good place to start is the Yakimono restaurant, which you can find in places such as OKC and Melbourne. The food prices are rather reasonable, and you only pay $10.99 for chicken Hibachi. That leaves you more money for the drinks.
Here, the beer is usually cold and crispy, or you can go with wine, whiskey, shochu, or the ever-dependable sake. This is not the place you visit for complicated cocktails and hipster microbrews.
Favorite options include sours that combine shochu with soda, usually with some type of fruit flavoring that resemble the now-popular “hard seltzers”. Or you can go with the Japanese version of a highball.
Quite a lot of izakaya locations offer happy hour specials, or even deals that let you drink all you can for a certain amount of time for a certain amount of money. This usually lasts only an hour or two, which is more than enough for lots of Japanese drinkers.
If you don’t drink alcohol, that’s fine too. There are alternatives like juice or tea, or even soda.
The food is often simple, and they’re basically included in the menu according to how well they match with drinking. Grilled items like yakitori are fairly common, along with other grilled meats and fish. You can also probably get some fried chicken (karaage) in some places, along with pickled vegetables and edamame. In places where the patrons include large numbers of westerners, you may even find pizza, potato salad, or even just French fries.
You’ll probably get a towel first so you can wipe your hands, and then a small starter dish called an otoshi. This can be anything, from fresh fish to stewed vegetables. Just try it, regardless of what they offer. You can always order more servings of other dishes later during the evening.
Just keep in mind that the servings are rather small, and are just enough for maybe one or two diners. But you can always get orders for each person in your group, whenever you order another round of drinks. If you need some filling food (since it’s never a good idea to drink on an empty stomach), get some grilled rice balls first.
Finding an Izakaya in Tokyo
While izakaya locations are now worldwide, the true izakaya in Tokyo is a different matter entirely. It’s a less polished world, but it’s a more authentic Tokyo experience. This is where you drink and dine with the locals.
It starts with finding the alleyway location, which the Japanese call yokocho. The entrances to the various izakaya locations will be marked with a red or white lantern, along with cloth drapes (noren) serving as the door. It’s usually a very small space, with some locations only offering seats for maybe a dozen people.
The Dining Experience
While a standard restaurant can offer lunch options, most typical izakaya opening times are at perhaps 5pm or 6pm. In some cases, the standard restaurant during the day becomes an izakaya when evening sets in.
Seating styles vary, with some locations opting for traditional low tables and cushions, while others offer standard western-style tables and chairs. Some places may insist that you remove your shoes first, which means you store your shoes in either a cubby by the entrance or a special place near your table. This means you should wear socks when you come to an izakaya for the first time.
Some of the smaller izakaya locations may not offer menus in English, so you will have to deal with menus in Japanese. There are even menus that are simply handwritten. Don’t be discouraged, as the servers can always help you out. In fact, the atmosphere is so friendly that you can ask the patrons at nearby tables for some suggestions. It’s easy to make friends at an izakaya.
When you’re done drinking and dining, make eye contact with a server and cross your index servers to indicate that you want the bill. Or you can say “okaikei onegaishimasu”. The bill is often not itemized at all, so just divide the bill equally among your group. If the place is in Japan or follows Japanese custom strictly, then tipping isn’t customary.
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