America’s best izakaya restaurants
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.