Tokyo has long been a dream destination for the food-obsessed. Restaurants in the Japanese capital may be decorated with more Michelin stars than any other city in the world, but it’s more than just a numbers game. What really sets Tokyo’s extraordinarily diverse dining scene apart is the universal emphasis on quality. High standards for culinary excellence endures across the entire spectrum of eateries and budgets, from lively department-store food halls and clandestine backstreet gastropubs to upscale restaurants that require reservations months in advance. The lure of an immersive foodie experience in Tokyo and all it entails—precision-cooking techniques, gracious hospitality, the freshest seasonal ingredients—can easily compel hungry travelers to amass as many unforgettable meals as possible during their trip.
An Insider’s Take on Tokyo’s Best Foodie Finds
The fastest way to get to the heart of Tokyo’s culture is through the stomach. However, with the city boasting over 150,000 restaurants (not including specialty shops), foodie newcomers to Japan’s capital tend to feel overwhelmed. Should you opt for haute cuisine or simpler, hearty staples that the locals enjoy? And what about sake pairings? This informative guide answers all those questions and more as you embark on your culinary journey through Tokyo.
Yukari Sakamoto, an American chef, sommelier, and author of culinary guide Food Sake Tokyo, often hears from overseas visitors who want to pack as much as possible into their daily itineraries—and their bellies. “[Some] want to try four restaurants in a single morning, asking for recommendations on where to go,” she says. Sakamoto also leads private food tours throughout Tokyo with her husband, Shinji, a former seafood buyer and Tsuji Culinary Institute alumnus. Given the city’s 150,000-plus restaurants—not to mention the countless shops selling other authentic edibles like wagashi sweets, condiments, tea, and takeaway box meals—Sakamoto wholly understands the rationale behind overindulging. Still, she suggests going easy on the hours-long sushi and kaiseki-ryōri (haute cuisine) feasts, encouraging lighter meals of ramen, tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), or soba instead. Not everyone listens: “I’ve had clients calling me on their third day saying that they have three more Michelin restaurant reservations, but just can’t eat any more big meals.”
Though some may perceive it as excessive, it’s good news that visitors are stuffing their calendars with restaurant bookings. Like everywhere else in the world, Tokyo’s cherished culinary establishments have had an especially challenging year due to the pandemic. Despite being confronted with ongoing obstacles, many restaurants continue to survive with support from first-time patrons and devout loyalists alike. And restaurants continue to prove resilience by adopting the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s recommended protocols, like mandatory mask-wearing, plastic partitions, frequent sterilizing, constant ventilation, and health checks for staff. Eating out in Tokyo is as safe as it gets—so why not pull up a seat to the table?
While the Sakamotos are certainly no strangers to the cypress counters and white-gloved waiters of Tokyo’s top-rated restaurants, their food recommendations reveal a more comprehensive take on the city’s vast culinary landscape. Tips might include visiting a centuries-old, family-run confectionery, or a venerable yōshoku diner for hashed beef, omu-rice (rice omelette with ketchup), and other old-fashioned Japanese riffs on Western food. The couple tends to prefer small restaurants themselves, especially those that have earned their golden reputations by word of mouth, with a solid boost from local food writers, chefs, and sommeliers.
Among their favorite spots is Shuka Nomoto, an intimate 15-seat izakaya (traditional gastropub) in residential Ebisu, which can be a challenge to find if you don’t know where to look. Run by owner-chef Daisuke Nomoto, the restaurant is marked only by a small standing andon lamp outside. “You think you’re heading the wrong way at first. When you get there, it’s mostly locals,” explains Sakamoto. She and her husband ask for Nomoto’s omakase (“I leave it to you”) course, fully improvised using his freshest seasonal ingredients. As he works behind the counter, they ask about each dish. “He makes dumplings with pig’s ear, which adds a crunch, and shirako (cod sperm sacs) tempura with fresh figs. It’s all so good and comes in surprising combinations you wouldn’t think of,” Sakamoto says.
Restaurants in Tokyo that focus on doing one thing extremely well—specialties like soba, eel, or tempura—also get high marks from the couple. Isehiro, in the Kyobashi district, has made yakitori for a century. The menu goes beyond wings, thighs, and breasts. Every edible part of the chicken (including those uncommon in Western diets, such as the neck, heart, and cartilage) is expertly sliced, seasoned, and grilled over charcoal by chefs who devote themselves to improving on the little things that make all the difference. “I love to watch the chefs and to smell the charcoal smoke and the charring sauce,” reflects Sakamoto.
Then there’s the question about sake pairings. According to Sakamoto, there are no rules: “Only personal preference matters.” She usually orders shun-no-osake (seasonal sake), which is drawn in batches by breweries in spring, summer, and fall. While restaurants and bars have their own bottle lists, Sakamoto suggests taking another route to sample sakes from the country’s 1,370 breweries. Look out for “antenna shops,” retail outlets run by governments from prefectures around Japan to promote their culture. These stores are stocked with authentic, hyper-local specialties; some are limited to food and drink, while others curate a collection of handicrafts like pottery. They’re popular with Tokyoites, too, for offering unique opportunities to discover regional goods and rare sake varieties from around the archipelago without leaving the capital. Sakamoto points out two antenna shops in the Nihonbashi district that represent the Shimane and Shiga prefectures, where guests can participate in sake tastings. “Their selection is even better than the department stores’,” she continues. After a sipping session at the bar counter, you’ll definitely want to bring a few bottles home.
The Sakamotos also lead tours centered around their favorite hidden gems in the Tsukiji Outer Market. Tsukiji Market, where the tuna auctions used to take place, is currently still packed with restaurants and vendors selling ceramics, tea, tamagoyaki (rolled egg omelette), and dried fish shavings. Founded in 1956, Tsukiji Hitachiya is one of those famous shops carrying traditional kitchenware handcrafted by artisans for generations, including donabe rice-cooking pots, bent-wood magewappa bento boxes, suribachi mortars, and nambu tekki cast-iron teapots. “Hitachiya is a beautiful little shop,” says Shinji Sakamoto. “The staff is friendly and their signs make it easy to understand what each item is and how to use it.”
From Tsukiji, the guides typically end their tour in one of Ginza’s depachika (department store food market), where a cornucopia of Japan’s best edible delights await. Traditionally located on the basement level of giant retail emporiums, these sprawling centers are where locals often go for hard-to-find ingredients and takeaway foods, which have been especially in demand since the pandemic. But they’re also one-stop-shops for everything else, from fish and Wagyu beef to dumplings, sushi, and sweets. “The guests we take there are simply amazed, and they can’t believe how reasonable prices are,” Yukari Sakamoto adds. “At the end of three hours, they’re often overwhelmed by the bounty presented before them.”
It’s a common sentiment among travelers who visit Tokyo thinking that they can see, do, and eat it all. But in a metropolis this vibrant, with inhabitants that take mealtime very seriously, a culinary journey knows no bounds. Venues have gone the extra mile to ensure a safe dining experience in uncertain times, though one thing does remain certain: Tokyo’s obsession with food is insatiable.
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Given the changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hours and accessibility of many places are subject to change. Please make sure to contact them prior to your visit. Learn more about Tokyo's safety measures here.