Tokyo is my hometown. I grew up there and worked in the giant city for a decade, meaning I have over 20 years of experience eating at Tokyo’s finest and not-so-finest establishments. I think this qualifies me as a local, hence the “Tokyo Local Restaurant Guide.”
Tokyo’s restaurant scene is ever-changing, and several former favourites of mine have closed since I moved away in late 2011. However, I have spent two months in each of the past two years back in the mega-city and revisited old haunts, as well as tried out new ones. Over the next while, I hope to keep adding to this Tokyo Local Restaurant Guide, which is by no means exhaustive (and current Tokyo residents will likely inform me of several great spots that I am missing). I will likely keep coming back to this post to edit and update it, so go ahead and bookmark this one.
EDIT- Two of the early criticisms I have received (other than being called some nasty names by people who don’t know me-fun!) have been that that the Ramen section is “weak” and that there aren’t enough $ (under $25) category entries. For those of you who don’t know anything about me and wish to, please refer to the “About” section and maybe you will understand why I chose to call this site “The Gentleman Backpacker” (hint- I am not a backpacker) and this may help you better understand my choices. I spent 10 years in Tokyo entertaining clients for work as well as exploring cheaper hole-in-the-wall type places in my spare time. So you are going to get a blend of high end with more affordable options. I now work as a photographer and I take people to Japan to explore that wonderful country, so I wanted to provide some good options for them that are easier to try out as a newbie to Japan.
Both criticisms (ramen and price point) above are fair. I must confess that my favourite ramen spots in Tokyo have recently closed. I have plenty of suggestions in Sapporo, my mother’s home town, and I have some suggestions for the best ramen spots to hit to fill up your stomach at 3am after a late night of drinking in Tokyo, but I need to further brush up on my ramen latest in Tokyo–and I will. In fact, I know more about New York City ramen right now than I do about Tokyo. Ramen is an intensely personal thing. Some people like tonkotsu (pork bone, fatty broth), others like simple shio (salt). For example, in NYC I don’t like Ippudo and wouldn’t line up for it again. I did love secret pop-up joint Sanshiro (RIP) in Midtown East, which was a secret spot for Japanese people working in Midtown to hit up on their way home late at night. That place was all about a very clean broth, so you understand my tastes in ramen.
On the second point about lower price-point options, I have two responses to this. The budget includes DRINK plus MEAL and I am being conservative. I don’t want you to go to a place I said was “under $25” and it comes out to $27.50 and you are upset. I want to keep it true. So even the noodle joints or burger joints, well, you would probably come in under the mark, and you definitely would if you don’t have a drink, but I want to be safe in my estimates, especially with a rapidly strengthening yen. The original audience for this post was more for people who can afford a little bit more (since you are flying all the way to Tokyo anyway), rather than backpackers on a shoestring. Nonetheless, I will try to be more inclusive with my post and update it, so please bookmark this one. Lastly, for those claiming they don’t trust people who aren’t living there…I was born and raised in Tokyo and have spent almost 25 years there. I go there regularly, several times a year. It is my hometown, and I am half-Japanese and fluent in the language. My list is designed to be accessible for people not only living in Japan and wanting to try spots they have never been to, but also be helpful for first time visitors as well.
I’ve also added a “reservations” comment to each entry to help you determine whether to call ahead or not, as that was some useful feedback from people.
And if you have any suggestions, please add them below! Many thanks and happy eating!
When I began this Tokyo Local Restaurant Guide, I started with about 400 restaurants. I whittled this list down to about 75. Now I will tell you in advance that some of you will disagree with me. You will have your favourite bowl of noodles or may have a higher end, Michelin-starred venue that you much prefer over my choices. I have tried to include a mix of everything at all different price points.
Tokyo is a city of incredible food, and its estimated 140,000 restaurants dwarf the count in New York, Paris, or London. So, too, does its Michelin star count, which with over 200 is more than those three other culinary capitals combined. So from a candidate list that exhaustive, there are going to be many omissions. So it’s best not to think about this as a BEST restaurants in Tokyo list–it isn’t, and doesn’t pretend to be that. This isn’t a ranking, either. To me the variety that Tokyo has to offer, at all different price points is what sets it apart–and that goes for (almost) all kinds of international cuisines as well (Good Middle Eastern and good Mexican are hard to find).
In February, Arthur Meyerson and I led the first in a series of photo tours to this amazing country in conjunction with the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, and I am proud to have shown people from around the world the beauty of my homeland. On our first trip, we had people from Great Britain, Canada, the United States (including Hawaii), and Japan joining us; the trip was sold out, and was a great success, which you can read about here.
There are two more amazing trips coming this fall, with Sam Abell, Jennifer Spelman, and George Nobechi. With due respect to other Japan photo trip offerings out there, you aren’t going to get as personal a touch or uncover as many hidden gems that stem from my years of experience over there. You can see the trip details here.
Expected price paid for a meal and a drink/cocktail:
$$$$$ >$150 US per person
$$$$ $100-$150 US per person
$$$ $50-$100 US per person
$$ $25-$50 US per person
$ <$25 US per person
Sushi Sei Ginza Hakuhinkan branch $$$Ginza (no reservations required)–you can’t make this one up. It’s a secret spot (ok, not really a secret) on the 5th floor of a giant toy store at the end of Ginza. There is a smoking counter and a non-smoking. I suggest going for the non-smoking counter if you can. This has always been my favorite go-to sushi place. In fact, I went FIVE times on my last trip to Japan. When you go, ask for “Kohnosu-San,” who is the branch manager and head chef, and tell him Nobechi sent you.
Kyubey$$$$$Several Locations (advanced reservations required)–the personal favourite of my longtime Tokyo partner in crime, Mr. Adrian H. His taste in good food is even more refined than mine. Now, some people feel rushed at Kyubey and don’t enjoy it. The important thing here is understand that the chef is going to do his thing (omakase). It’s not an “a la carte” sort of place. If you are worried about that, have your hotel concierge call and smooth things over. Or, honestly, go to Sushi Sei and see my friend Kohonosu-San. You won’t be disappointed.
Uogashi $Several Locations (Nihonbashi is my go-to, no reservations accepted)–this is a “tachigui” sushi place, great for lunch. That means you go and stand and order, no seating. A cheap, cheerful way to access fresh sushi in Tokyo.
To Jiro or not to Jiro…
Okay, so some of you are going to ask…why not Jiro from Jiro Dreams of Sushi? Well, I have never been. It’s never been high on my priority list, especially after the movie and the number of people who now say to me–“You’re from Japan? Have you been to Jiro? I want to go! How could you not have gone? Don’t you like sushi?” Of course I like sushi. I love it! But his surly reputation, etc., rigid rules–that is not how I prefer to enjoy my meals. If you went and enjoyed it, great! That’s not my personal style. I’ve been to many great sushi places, including Komatsu Yasuke in Kanazawa before it closed. They said of Master Yasuke: “In the East (Tokyo) there is Jiro, in the West (Kanazawa) there is Yasuke.” Local Kanazawa rumour has it that Master Yasuke is mulling re-opening further west in Kyoto, at the ripe old age of 83. Master Yasuke is not only incredibly talented, but he is a really, really nice man, too. I would patronize his restaurant every day of the week over someone very grouchy.
Yakiniku (Japanicized Korean BBQ- grill your own pieces of beef at your table)
Jumbo $$$Shirokane (advanced reservations required)–hands down my favorite!! Just amazing beef.
Jojoen $$$Many Locations (reservations not required)—I much prefer Jumbo if you can get a reservation there! Jojoen does have a delicious Korean salad (sesame dressing), however.
Yakiniku-en $Azabu Juban (reservations not accepted) –cheap and cheerful! A classic place that accepts cash only and does not take reservations. Walk down a steep set of stairs to this awesome basement den. Don Arturo, aka world-famous photographer Arthur Meyerson himself gives it the thumbs up!
Ramen (Noodle Soup)
There are many varieties of ramen and cater to different kinds of tastes. Picking a “best of” is always contentious. If you are a fan of the stuff you find in America, every ramen shop in Tokyo will be as good as that and will “hit the spot” for you. But here is a good place for you to learn a bit about ramen and to see what types you may want to try:
Yakitori(grilled chicken and vegetables on skewers)
Kushimura $$Roppongi (Reservations recommended for Thurs, Fri evenings, but not required-larger groups you should call) English-friendly. The “cheezu-P” is a must if you like bacon and cheese.
Kushiage (fried food on skewers)
Rokukakutei $$$$Ginza and now Azabu Juban (Advanced reservations highly recommended)–Michelin-starred fried food on a stick! Need I say more? One of my absolute favorite hidden gems of Tokyo. This place has an incredible selection of wine as well (but no wine list). Tell them your preference and your budget, and let the sommelier surprise you. The way this place works is you pay 10,000 yen ($85) per person for up to 20 skewers of different kinds they keep bringing you. Wagyu with Worcestershire sauce? Deep fried camembert cheese? Scallops in ponzu sauce? Salmon in mustard sauce? Yes, please!
Tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets)
Tonki $ Meguro(Reservations not accepted)— An absolutely amazing, quintessential Tokyo experience worth the wait (there’s always a wait). Watch the old men work the cutlet assembly line like no other, and appreciate their ability to cut cabbage into the finest slices ever.
Maisen $$Omotesando (Reservations not required but it can get busy on weekend lunch times)— A Tokyo institution tucked away on a back street of glitzy Omotesando. They tend to run out of Kagoshima “Black Pork” early in the afternoon so if that’s on your desired list go early.
Hirata Bokujo $ Many locations (Reservations not required)–newest is found inside the fabulous Tokyo Midtown complex
Akasaka $$$$37th floor of the ANA Intercontinental Hotel in Akasaka (Reservations Recommended) -Can’t beat the view. Plus, it is really, really good.
Sukiyaki and Shabu Shabu
Japanese wagyu beef thinly sliced and prepped in either simmered sauce (sukiyaki) or boiled in water and dipped in ponzu or sesame sauce (shabu shabu)
Chinya Asakusa $$$ Asakusa (Reservations not required for lunch, dinner recommended)–why not make a trip of it and check out Asakusa’s famous temple as well? Chinya has been around since 1880
Imahan $$$$Many locations (Reservations recommended)–the Ginza location I have linked to is in a newer building and is nice.
Zakuro $$$$Many locations (Reservations recommended)- One of Japan’s most famous chains for this type of cuisine.
Seryna $$$$Roppongi— (Advanced Reservations Required) Attached to Mon Cher Ton Ton Teppanyaki
Tentei $$$ Ginza—(Reservations not required) Experience “real” tempura in Japan in course form in this tiny basement restaurant in a back street of Ginza. Best deals are at lunch time, when the same course as dinner can cost half the price.
Oak Door $$$$Roppongi –(Reservations not required, but recommended) inside the Grand Hyatt hotel with a luxurious atmosphere, you may see celebrities, both Japanese and foreign taking in a meal or drinks here.
Chaco $$ Sendagaya –(Reservations not required) old school Japanese fire oven steakhouse that used to have a Roppongi location as well.
Beacon $$Aoyama — (Reservations recommended) solid food across the board if you are missing a bit of the home cuisine. From the fantastic TY Harbor Group of restaurants in Tokyo.
New York Grill $$$$West Shinjuku (Advanced reservations required) –the restaurant attached to the bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo made famous by the film Lost in Translation. The views are killer and the atmosphere sublime and romantic.
I am not joking about how good these are. They compare favorably with anything I have had in the US and Canada.
Blacows $Ebisu –(Reservations not required) possibly the best in town–super juicy wagyu patties, but heavy on sauce, so if you are not a saucy burger fan, maybe not the best choice for you.
Franklin Avenue $Gotanda– (Reservations not required) cool little spot set in a residential neighborhood. Do note that if you arrive later in the day, they “run out” of buns and they substitute regular sliced bread.
AS Classics $Jiyugaoka —(Reservations not required) awesome, old-diner feel tucked in a Japanese residential neighborhood
Firehouse $Hongo-Sanchome —(Reservations not required) amazing malt shakes in this neighborhood spot near Tokyo University.
Beacon $$Aoyama — (Reservations highly recommended) a repeat appearance from the steakhouse list, this restaurant has solid food across the board if you are missing a bit of the home cuisine. From the fantastic TY Harbor Group of restaurants in Tokyo.
Unagi (BBQ eel)
Hatsuogawa $$Asakusa –(Reservations not required) a true, secret Tokyo gem in a tiny house in historic Asakusa.
Nodaiwa $$$Akabanebashi —(Reservations highly recommended) pairing Krug champagne and eel? You can do it here. And it’s fabulous.
Sense $$$$Nihombashi — (Reservations required) The Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Tokyo at one time boasted three different restaurants with Michelin stars! This is one of them. Excellent Cantonese fare with great views.
Din Tai Fung $$Several locations-(Reservations not required) Many years ago, the NY Times picked Din Tai Fung as one of its 10 best restaurants to try in the world a few years ago and the popularity of this dumpling house continues to grow worldwide as it expands in the US and Canada.
Shin Hokkai-en $$$Roppongi- (Reservations not required) Good Beijing cuisine and delicious dim sum in a popular area of town.
Priya $Hiroo- (Reservations not required)This restaurant is tucked away at the back of the Hiroo Shopping Street near the station. Don’t be fooled by the expat-heavy location, it is excellent food.
Quintessence $$$$$Azabu —(Advanced reservations required) considered perhaps Japan‘s finest Western restaurant. 3 Michelin stars every year–reservations assistance essential.
Chateau Robuchon $$$$$Ebisu —(Advanced reservations required) Joel Robuchon has more Michelin stars to his name than any other celebrity chef. His Tokyo flagship restaurant is a chateau in the middle of the city!!
L’Atelier Robuchon $$$$Roppongi —(Advanced reservations required) The more casual and modern Robuchon offering features the signature open kitchen design of L’Atelier locations seen around the world (such as in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand). Located in the amazing and ever-bustling Roppongi Hills complex, you can enjoy some fabulous photographic opportunities here as well.
Le Petit Tonneau $$$Toranomon— (Reservations recommended) A more casual bistro-style offering. But don’t be fooled by the causal decor. The food is excellent and the wine list extensive.
Plate Tokyo $$Nishi-Azabu —(Reservations recommended because it is a small spot) A casual spot (but book ahead) that is always busy. The lady chef prides herself on her ingredients and she goes to travel for half the year to get new dish ideas
Tsubaki $$$$$Nishi-Azabu — (Walk in at all hours of the night) One of my all-time favorite hidden gems (hat tip to Mr. Adrian H). The wine list is off-the-charts incredible. If you feel like a 1915 Chateau Margaux, this is your place. This place is also open very late (5AM). It is a secret den for Japanese celebrities.
Elio Locanda $$$Hanzomon — (Reservations required) Possibly the best “trattoria” I have been to outside Tuscany. Let the waiters tell you about their freshest ingredients and definitely have the freshly flown in burrata (buffalo mozzarella) if they have it, although on my most recent visit they told me they started making their own in Hokkaido. And it’s great!
La Bisboccia $$$$Hiroo — (Reservations recommended) a Tokyo expat institution. Great energy and fabulous steaks in this house in Tokyo.
Il Mulino Tokyo $$$$Roppongi(Reservations recommended)–dimly lit, a very romantic restaurant. For me the portions are a bit large and a bit on the salty side, but it’s a New York classic, done Japanese style, with good service and fresh ingredients.
Il Buttero Tokyo $$$ Hiroo— (Reservations not required most nights, doesn’t hurt to make one) a great, heated greenhouse-enclosed garden is the place to sit in this hidden gem in the Hiroo neighborhood. The romantic mood of the place is backed up by very good food.
Bice Tokyo $$$$Shiodome—(Reservations recommended) you can’t beat the views at this Michelin-starred offering high atop Shiodome in Tokyo–great for a romantic evening.
Trattoria Serena $$ Mita- Reservations not required most nights, doesn’t hurt to make one because it is a trek to get to and it is a small restaurant–might be booked out for the night)I honestly cannot believe I am giving this place away. It is very, very special to me. The husband and wife team here are incredible. The course offerings are fantastic, the food amazing. You’d never find it if you didn’t know where it was. The cabbies don’t even know it, and even if you look at the website, you are going to struggle to find it the first time. The very best of Tokyo lies hidden here. If there is one downside, it’s that they renovated the interior a few years back to look like a Trattoria and they should have left it the quaint, but not Italian-looking place that it was before.
Pizza in Tokyo?! Yes. Neapolitan style pizzas are excellent in Tokyo. American style? Not so much.
Pizzakaya $$Roppongi — (Reservations not required) for something a little bit different and wild.
Other and Special Interest Categories:
Best “Opening Night” Introduction to Tokyo:
Shin-Hinomoto (Andy’s) $$Yurakucho (Reservations required except if you go before 5PM)–This Tokyo institution is set under the train tracks at Yurakucho Station (near the Bic Camera store).Andy is the first foreigner to obtain a wholesaler’s license at the Tokyo Tuskiji Fish Market. The man knows his fish and his restaurant is popular with foreigners and locals alike.
Cicada $$$Azabu — (Reservations Required) one of the few restaurants in Tokyo with a New York-style buzz. This place is full of beautiful people and even prettier food. Wonderful menu of tapas-style offerings.
Best place to mingle with locals, point at the dish next to you and say “I will have whatever that is” while getting drunk as a skunk on cheap sake:
Uosan $Monzen-Nakacho – (Reservations not accepted) The sashimi is great and CHEAP. No rice dishes/carb dishes here. Fish only! This is a 4-storey fish and sake house in a very “local” neighborhood in Tokyo. Get ready for some fun, cheap, mayhem!
Best Fish Pub:
Kaikaya $$Shibuya — (Reservations required) explore world-famous Shibuya by night afterwards.
Best random trip down Japanese memory lane:
Golden Gai District $$Shinjuku— (Reservations not accepted) “ruined” by Anthony Bourdain, this favourite drinking district of mine sits wedged between Shinjuku’s infamous Kabukicho Red Light District and its skyscrapers. It’s a collection of Showa-era (early 20th century) bars but not a place to go bar-hopping per se, but to pick one or two places that appeal to you and slowly enjoy. Unfortunately, Bourdain exposed it a couple of years ago to selfie-taking tourists who bounce from bar to bar and don’t respect local customs, so you will see signs that say “no photography.” But don’t be discouraged: if you sit and chat with the proprietor over a whisky, buy him/her a round, and ask his permission, he/she will let you take pictures. And it is a fabulous place for that. I do recommend going on a quiet night like a Monday, rather than a big party night. Go in a small crew (3 max) and take your time. The idea is to have conversations with the bar owner as you go, not to just talk amongst yourselves. Enjoy!
Best place to have authentic wiener schnitzel and German beer:
Best tourist-friendly robatayaki (grilled meats, vegetables and seafood on charcoal fires):
Inakaya $$$$Roppongi- (Reservations required) Food served on paddles–a little bit touristy but first-timers do enjoy everything but the bill you get at the end of the night.
Best Fast Food to try before you leave Japan: (Reservations not required)
Basement of any major Japanese department store (Tokyu, Takashimaya, Mitsukoshi, etc.). Cosmetics sold on the first floor? Check. Some of the most amazing fast or prepared foods and bento boxes you can imagine? Basement of a department store will never let you down and is a great cultural experience.
New York Bar and Grill $$$$ Shinjuku(Reservations not required for drinks but do expect to wait) –As mentioned above in the steakhouse section, this bar was made famous by “Lost in Translation.” This is the bar that started it all in Tokyo whereas now this is an entire category of incredible bars with incredible views.
XEX Atago Green Hills $$$(Reservations not required for drinks, recommended for restaurants) Atago- Italian and Japanese fare, as well as a piano bar.
Bice Tokyo $$$$Shiodome — (Reservations recommended) you can’t beat the views at this Michelin-starred Italian offering high atop Shiodome in Tokyo–great for a romantic evening.
Thanks for reading this post! If you liked it please think about subscribing by following this link Subscribe here. You will receive an email when new articles are posted. Your email address will be secure and you will never receive any marketing emails from third parties. Every new subscriber matters since this is a relatively young site. We really appreciate your support.
7 thoughts on “TGB’s Tokyo Local Restaurant Guide”
I had the good fortune to dine at several of these places with George and they are wonderful. My favorite??? That’s a secret. But it’s on the list. Try them all. You won’t be sorry. George, among other things, is the man when it comes to dining in Tokyo!
Thank you very much for your comment, Arthur. It was a pleasure to show you a few of my favorite spots. I can’t wait until our return engagement next spring, taking photographers from all around the world through Japan for the cherry blossoms. And we will visit some of these restaurants as well!
You can’t wait???!!! Me either! The chance to sample more of these restaurants with a group of adventurous photographers is making me anxious more than ever. Add to that a photo tour itinerary that no one else is offering and you have the makings of another fantastic Japanese experience. Arrigato, George!
Great job with this man. I’ll chime in with some of my favorites. Chinmaya (tantan men). Tempura tenichi (yes a bit touristy especially on the top floor of Takashimaya mall but still quality tempura). And 67 Gyoza in Ebisu
Thank you, Paul. Good suggestions. Will incorporate these into the list.
It’s been such a privilege to say the least to go through life with you during such an impressionable and exciting period of our lives. I couldn’t have asked for a finer match than you to spread our young wings in the Tokyo culinary scene. I have never seen a guy eyeball a steak a second after it arrives on a table and tell the waiter that it’s an ounce short of what the menu lists it as yet say it with respect and kindness towards the staff who served it. It’s this type of attention to detail coupled with your gentlemanly like behavior that makes you, you.
Thank you for putting me in the presence of greatness with the respected and revered, to say the least, Arthur Meyerson. Arthur if you are reading this thank you for being such a great mentor to one of my dearest friends. I hope to meet you one day.
George – I look forward to dedicating solid hours to this segment so that I can add input which TGB deserves.
Dear Adrian. Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment, amigo. Likewise it was an absolute pleasure to “grow up” with you in Tokyo as we found our wings and learned to fly. You were the best “partner in crime” I could have asked for.
You were also among the chief inspirations for the creation of this site to begin with with your worldliness, fine taste, generosity towards others, and respect and love for Japan. And now your encouragement for my decision to pursue a new life in photography has been a great support for me as well.
I look forward to your input and suggestions on this, and other future posts!