The Spanish have tapas. The Brits, gastropubs. In Greece, it’s mezze. China, dim sum. And in Japan, these shared, small plates are found in izakayas—lively pubs clad with paper lanterns and rambunctious diners.
Directly translated to mean “sake shop where you can stay,” these raucous taverns got their start when sake breweries started allowing customers to stay for a drink, rather than take their sake home. But in Japan, you never just drink—food is always paired.
“Izakayas started with very humble food to go with the sake,” explains Daisuke Utagawa, co-owner of recently opened Daikaya in Washington, D.C. “Now it’s a full-fledged restaurant, but it still keeps that very down-to-earth, humble, folksy feel that welcomes all classes of people. The food is adaptive and freestyle in nature, unlike other well-defined Asian cuisines, like sushi, which most izakayas in Japan offer only a small selection of, if any at all.”
Expect to get tipsy—not only is heavy drinking endorsed, but there’s a protocol for the meal that all but guarantees hours of debauchery. (Hint: food is ordered gradually and the kitchen brings plates as they’re ready, rather than all at once or in formal courses.) A meal typically starts with something raw, like sashimi or pickled vegetables (called tsukemono). Grilled skewers (called kushiyaki, or yakatori for poultry) come next, along with something fried, like chicken (called karaage) or Agedashi tofu. Finally, noodles (udon and ramen) and rice dishes arrive, saved for last to give diners room for everything else, and used as a mop to soak up all the alcohol you’ve just guzzled down.
Whether you just want to belly up to the bar for some sake and edamame, or you prefer to wile away the night with friends, izakayas have something for everyone. Herewith, our favorite spots across the country:
Daikaya, Washington, D.C.
Drawing on Tokyo’s densely packed architectural style—restaurants are stacked on top of each other—Daikaya houses a ramen shop on the main floor and a 90-seat, bustling izakaya upstairs, complete with a DJ table, roped-off booths and menus stuffed into Japanese fashion magazines. “We wanted to bring a slice of life from Japan,” says Tokyo-born-and-bred Daisuke Utagawa, the co-owner. At Daikaya, you’ll find authentic dishes like onigiri, a rice ball stuffed with pork stew and wrapped in crisp seaweed, and skewered items like chicken skin and beef tongue.
Celebrity chef and restaurateur Michael Mina made his first foray into Japanese cuisine with PABU, a modern izakaya housed inside Baltimore’s swanky Four Seasons Hotel. Though the small plates and robata-grilled items anchor chef Jonah Kim’s menu, the jet-fresh fish—there’s over 22 species flown in daily from Japan’s famed Tsukiji Market—has resulted in a cult-like following at the sushi bar. Don’t miss unagidon, a bowl of rice topped with broiled fresh water eel, foie gras and sesame seeds, and the “Happy Spoon,” a bite-size offering starring a Rappahannock Old Salt oyster, sea urchin and salmon roe bathed in Ponzu crème fraiche. They’re best alongside one of the 102 sake offerings, a program helmed by Tiffany Dawn Soto, one of America’s few master sake sommeliers.
Izakaya Den, Denver
After 30 years of serving sushi on Denver’s historic South Pearl Street, the Kizaki brothers opened a two-story, 250-seat izakaya next door—upstairs you’ll find an open-air cocktail bar and bamboo garden reminiscent of Japanese meditation gardens. Like its sister restaurant, Sushi Den, the fast-paced hotspot (a line starts forming at the door before the restaurant even opens) also features sushi—over 2,000 pounds of fish are flown in daily from Japan’s fish markets. But home-style small plates, like crispy Ikanago and burdock (a traditional bar snack of sand lance fish and burdock root), six-hour braised pork belly, and five styles of ramen, are the focus here.
Blue Ribbon Sushi Izakaya, New York City
The Blue Ribbon empire may have started with a French brasserie back in 1992, but today the brother-owned brand is perhaps best known for their izakaya—if you haven’t tried their matzo-meal fried chicken with wasabi honey, you should flee to Manhattan stat. It’s no wonder New Yorkers flock to the space not only for the Japanese-meets-Jewish mirin-and-sake-laced chicken liver mousse, but also for the 55 bottles of sake and shochu. Don’t miss the shochu claypot service, a DIY cocktail cart of sorts where diners combine shochu with fresh grapefruit, orange or lychee juice and Oolong tea.
Izakaya Sozai, San Francisco
After numerous trips to Japan spent scouring the streets for the best izakaya, Ritsu Osuka and his wife finally decided to open their own. Rather than focus on just one technique or dish, Osuka opted for a menu as large as the restaurant is small. That’s 48 dishes and just 34 seats. Authentic plates of wasabi-marinated octopus, chicken skin yakitori, and sake steamed clams complement unique offerings, like shochu lockers (if you don’t finish your bottle on one visit, they’ll save it for your next one), and you can even buy Osuka’s housemade sauces, like spicy miso, to take home with you. Don’t be surprised if your server or the chef from the open kitchen throws back a few sakes with you—it’s not uncommon for customers to buy the staff a drink as a token of appreciation in Japan. Be sure to end your meal with the Tonkotsu ramen, a hangover cure with a fanatical following in the Bay Area.
Miso Izakaya, Atlanta
Chef Guy Wong grew up working in his family’s Chinese restaurants before getting a degree in finance, but after going to culinary school in Japan, he was inspired to open his own place, this time an izakaya. “The Japanese try not to imitate one another’s food, and I don’t want to just be another restaurant doing shrimp tempura, so I’ll either do my own version of a dish or not do it at all,” Wong said. Unsurprisingly, the black walnut tables at this vibrant spot in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward are full with extremely affordable plates of pan-roasted hamachi collar and shoyu tamago, a soft-boiled egg bathed in soy sauce sitting atop an ultra-crispy rice cake.
The Dojo, Austin
While most restaurants are out to unearth the next trendsetting dish, the team behind The Dojo (which includes an Osaka-trained chef) is taking a backward approach. “We’re trying to introduce an old concept, one that takes away the experimental and just delivers simple, traditional food as it has been served for so many years all over Japan,” explains general manager Ken Macias. Unsurprisingly, the minimalistic eatery and sake bar, which surprisingly is the first of its kind in Austin, is known as much for their rare drinks (think Cassis Oolong, Grapefruit Sour, and Warm Shochu) as they are for their bona fide bites, like chicken karaage (deep fried chicken), yaki tsukune (chicken meat balls), and other teppanyaki-style grilled items. The restaurant stays open until 3 a.m. weekends and 2 a.m. weekdays.
After living in Sapporo for a year, Gabe Rosen and his wife decided to bring their love of everyday Japanese food back to Portland and open their own izakaya. The history of the building they chose—it was once a gay liberation coffeehouse, Montessori school, Methodist church, and African café—is as varied as the menu. The smoked pork shoulder ramen may be the poster girl, but the other 45 dishes dazzle the motley masses that swarm the restaurant until its midnight closing. Don’t miss the housemade miso soup with ota tofu, hand-wrapped pork gyoza, yakotori and sashimi, all washed down with sake (there are more than 40 varieties).