Tokyo is such a fantastic city to be hungry in.
There is food on every corner. Restaurants, formal and casual, can be found everywhere. The chain restaurants, offering common Japanese fare such as gyu-don, udon, and tempura, line the streets. You choose and purchase your meal from a vending machine – most helpfully labelled with pictures – and pass the coupons on to the service staff inside the restaurant. Most of them operate throughout the day, and are good for a quick, fuss-free meal.
Then there are the places found in the oddest spots. Watering holes in dingy alleys. Nocturnal yatai stalls. Cafes set up in spaces no bigger than a (small) living room. Izakaya in basements. Basements. The Japanese sure loves setting up restaurants in basements. I can’t say much about their ventilation, but their food makes stinky jackets worthwhile.
Malls have restaurant floors which remain open long after the retail floors close. Helpfully, most major cuisines are represented – washoku (traditional Japanese food), Chinese, Italian et al. There are branches of venerable restaurants such as Maisen (tonkatsu; Shibuya Hikarie), Tsunahachi (tempura; Takashimaya Times Square) and Hakone Akatsukian (soba; Ginza Mitsukoshi).
A mall’s depachika, which literally translates to “department basement”, is always fun to browse and spend some of your omiyage money. There is an impressive variety of wagashi (Japanese sweets), cakes, and desserts, all dressed up and waiting to feature in your supper plans. Come just before they close, and you get discounts off the hot foods and sushi bentos. We have a very soft spot for their delicious puddings, and it sure doesn’t hurt that they come in pretty bottles as well. (Here’s Food Sake Tokyo’s top 10 depachika.)
I used to tell people that you don’t have to be particularly mindful of where you eat in Tokyo; the quality of food is generally good, and the service faultless. But I do understand now the sentiment to hunt down great restaurants. After all, there are only so many meal times in a day. Here are our favourites:
Tempura Tsunahachi 天ぷら新宿つな八
Shinjuku, various locations / website
We had this as our last proper meal this time in Tokyo. We reached about five minutes before the restaurant opened and only one person was in the queue. Yay! Set lunches start from ¥1,400 and go up to ¥8,000 for omakase.
We had the Hiru-zen set (¥1,400) and that came with ebi (prawn), white fish, ika (squid), capsicum, and deep-fried small shrimps (kakiage). Each piece was delicious, but the standout was easily the capsicum. Since we still had some yen left, we splurged and ordered a serving of uni nori maki tempura (¥2,000). That was the single most expensive thing we ate on the holiday, but it was worth every yen. Rich and creamy uni encased in nori, dipped in batter, then deep-fried in sesame oil. So so good. Also, the wasabi salt goes pretty damn well with the tempura.
Take a counter seat if you want to see the chefs in action. But if you wish to avoid smelling of oil, maybe it’s best to take a table.
3-31-8 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160-0022
(〒160-0022 東京都新宿区 新宿3-31-8)
We took the JR Shinjuku South exit. Make a left when you exit the station, and walk straight till you see the 金の蔵 restaurant on your left. Then turn left and continue on straight. The restaurant is just past the Segafredo café. Opposite Tsunahachi and a few shops down is the Funabashi Honten, also an acclaimed tempura joint. Choices! Also, if you know a little Japanese, you can make a reservation on the Japanese site (linked above).
Yes! There is a English menu for set lunches, as well as instructions on how best to enjoy the tempura. If you want the uni tempura, it’s called uni-nori-maki.
SHIN Udon 慎
Shinjuku / website
Foursquare is a great resource for us during travels. We picked this by filtering restaurant results according to ranking, and this came up in the top results with a 9.2 score. Also, it was a short walk from our hotel so we decided on an early dinner to avoid the crowds.
The restaurant was tiny! There were a couple of couple seats and two small tables. When we reached just before 6pm, it was already full and despite us being the first in line, it took another 20 minutes before we were seated. The service staff took our order while we were in line, so we didn’t have to wait long after getting our table.
We had warm udon with assorted tempura, as well as the gyu-niku udon with burdock tempura. What a treat it was. The tempura was excellent. The ebi pieces were the best tempura I’ve ever had.
English menu available.
Various locations / website
We were prepared to leave Tokyo this time without ingesting a bowl of ramen. But on that lovely afternoon in Shimokitazawa while looking for a place to have lunch at, we took a turn and there it was. It didn’t take much more persuasion after that. Every visitor to Japan should definitely have the ichiran experience at least once.
If you haven’t got the temperament for spicy food, stay on the side of caution when choosing the amount of their signature red sauce (I chose normal and that was a touch too spicy for me. 1/2 next time). It does make their soup so much more awesome though.
Mostly okay. If you haven’t been to Ichiran before, it can be a little daunting since there’s no one to ask or guide you. Just take your time!
Ginza Kyubey 銀座 久兵衛
Ginza / website
When in Japan, eat sushi. We had plans to have sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market, but the weather was just so dreadfully dreary that we made the sad decision of not visiting the fish market one last time before it moves in 2016. Since our original plan fell through and we needed our fix, I began looking for sushi-ya that didn’t require reservations, and didn’t cost an arm and leg. I read online that Kyubey doesn’t take lunch reservations except for the 1130am slot. We reached around 15 minutes past 11, and while the counter seats were all taken, we were given a table on 3F. Yay.
We took the lunch omakase (¥8,000). It was a wonderful meal. The service was flawless, and the food, for the most part, very worthy. We got to choose between two desserts: watermelon (suika) and sakura mochi. We unanimously chose the latter. It was hanami season after all.
Lunch slots are for an hour, and there is quite a bit of food to polish off within that time so go on an empty stomach!
7-6, Ginza 8-chome, Chuo-ku,Tokyo 104-0061, Japan
(〒104-0061 東京都中央区銀座8丁目4-26 横須賀第6ビル)
Yes! They have staff who speak English.
Nakajima 新宿 割烹中嶋
Shinjuku / website
SARDINES. This place served the best sardines (iwashi) we’ve ever eaten. We went just after it opened at 1130am and the weather was dreary, so we were seated within 10 minutes.
The restaurant serves just set lunches, and you get to choose from four different ways of iwashi preparation: sashimi, deep-fried, simmered, or deep-fried and simmered in egg (Yanagawa-nabe, for ¥100 more). There is also a hā-fu (half) option, where you get a serving of sashimi and deep-fried sardines. Where else can you get a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant for $10?
Nichihara Bldg. B1, 3-32-5 Shinjuku, Tokyo 160-0022
(〒160-0023 東京都新宿区新宿3-32-5 日原ビルB1)
This place is really close to Tempura Tsunahachi. Take the JR Shinjuku South exit, make a left and head straight. Turn left one street after you see the 金の蔵 restaurant. As the restaurant is in the basement, look out for the restaurant signage (it says “中嶋”) or watch out for the queue.
Yes. There is an English menu available, though the hā-fu option isn’t on that. Just ask nicely :) The restaurant manager speaks excellent English!
Aoyama / website
Sarah has been here before and really liked it here, but we hadn’t planned on coming here. I am really glad we were in the area that day and all ready for lunch. We chose the cha-mi-ton (茶美豚 from Kagoshima) tenderloin, and the cha-mi-ton loin tonkatsu set. Both were very good; the tenderloin had just the perfect amount of fat and meat, the loin was juicy and meaty without being tough.
There are signs to the restaurant from the A2 exit of the Tokyo Metro Omotesando station. There can be quite the line at lunch time and during weekends, but this is worth the wait. The tonkatsu game here is strong.
Address for Aoyama Main Restaurant (Honten)
Jingūmae 4 Chome−8, Shibuya, Tokyo 〒150-0001
(〒150-0001 東京都渋谷区神宮前4丁目8 神宮前4−8−5)
Yes. Menu available in English.
Aoyama / website
Do you like meat? If you do, come here. This tabe-houdai (all you can eat) Brazilian churrascaria serves up a great selection of grilled meats. Get seated, turn the table token over to green, and watch the food come. Waiters come around with skewers of gorgeous meats, and ask if you would like some. Of course, you do. We mostly had no idea what cuts of meat we were eating, but most were super yummy.
There is also a well-stocked salad bar so you can feel less guilty about piling up your plate with slices of juicy, luscious meat. Also, the grilled pineapple is to die for!
When you’re done, turn the table token to red and that indicates that you don’t need any more food. We copped out pretty quickly, sadly.
4 Chome-4-3-2 Jingumae Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0001
Roppongi / website
We were visiting the 21_21 Design Sight Museum that early evening, and decided to have dinner at Roppongi Midtown. There wasn’t anything that stood out to us in the restaurant directory so we went down to the basement to see if there were any other food.
Suzunami specializes in gindara (black cod). It was such a satisfying meal. We were served sweet black beans as appetizer, and I really liked them. Along with the fish, there were also a number of side dishes, all of which were delicious. The fish, unsurprisingly, was great. Its meat was firm but silky smooth. Mmm.
Tokyo Midtown, Galleria B1
(〒107-0052 東京都港区 東京ミッドタウン 赤坂9-7-1)
Nope. No English menu, but jabbing at menu works.
Sarugaku Coffee 猿楽珈琲
It took us many glances at road signs and zooming in-and-outs at Google Maps to try locate this place. All that diligence did us no good, and in the end, I found more precise directions on a Timeout article. So: locate the Daikanyama post office building (opposite Eataly). Look for a sign to Caffe Foglio, take the stairs down to the basement and walk to the end past Caffe Foglio. There, you would find yourself in Sarugaku Coffee.
The cafe is tiny, with just a few tables. We were lucky to get the last table; a pair of ladies who came in right after us were told politely but firmly that the cafe was full. Jazz music played, and the cafe was a dim orange from the paper lanterns that hung from the low ceilings above our tables. This could easily be a scene from Murakami’s stories.
The offerings at the cafe are coffee and homemade cheesecake. Coffee is served black, but you get to choose if you would like it normal (futsu), bitter, or very bitter. No milk or sugar is provided. If you prefer a milk-based coffee, you’ve to order a separate cup.
I don’t know much about coffee, and this was the first time I had a black coffee. I was understandably apprehensive, but this was good. I later tried sipping from Sarah’s cups of coffee elsewhere to make sure that I didn’t actually love black coffee, and that Sarugaku’s version made all the difference.
The cheesecake too was excellent, and went splendidly with the coffee.
B1F Daikanyama Post Office Bldg, 23-3 Sarugakucho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
(渋谷区猿楽町23-3 鳥居ビルB-1 Shibuya, 東京都)
There isn’t any English menu, but the owner seems to understand my hā-fu Japanese/English. Wait till the owner comes to you for your order (there is only him at the cafe, so it will take a while), and payment is made in cash when your coffee arrives at the table. Photography is discouraged, as is loud conversation.
Bear Pond Espresso
Shimokitazawa / website
We stumbled upon this cafe. Really. We knew about the cafe, but had no plans to visit and didn’t know that it was in Shimokitazawa until we walked right into the cafe. Sarah loved her coffee, and I really loved my iced sweet coffee with milk. Sweet coffee is invented for the likes of me, I am sure.
2 Chome-36-12 Kitazawa, Setagaya, Tokyo 155-0031, Japan
Other Good Places
Sarutahiko Coffee 猿田彦珈琲
Ebisu / website
Streamer Coffee Company
Shibuya, Harajuku / website
Various locations / website
Try the apple ring!
Mahkala Happy Pudding
Naka-Meguro / website
Naka-Meguro / website
This was a little café with lots of petite buns and pastries. We tried the matcha melon bun and the sakura anpan bun.
Food Blogs About Tokyo / Links
Food Sake Tokyo
Tokyo Food File
Serious Eats: 10 Sensational Stops for Japanese Food in Shinjuku