The word izakaya comes from sake-ya, or “sake house,” which gives a clear indication of the origin of these establishments. The izakaya that began cropping up around Japan during the Edo period were essentially taverns serving salty, fatty, umami-laden food designed to encourage patrons to drink more. In its purest form, an izakaya is still precisely that, but chefs in Tokyo have been putting their own contemporary spin on the genre for years. As New York’s relationship with Japanese cuisine has grown more nuanced, ambitious restaurants specializing in yakitori, refined cocktails, curry, and everything in between have flourished. The following places still pour plenty of booze, but also serve everything from perfectly charred chicken skewers to hearty rice bowls perfect as late-night grub.Read More
16 Exceptional Izakaya in NYC
From barebones drinking dens to perfectly charred yakitori, these places prove Japanophiles here never had it so good
Walking into this tiny joint in Hamilton Heights feels like stumbling across a secret, albeit one with a devout neighborhood following. ROKC — which stands for ramen, oysters, kitchen, and cocktails — is a joint venture of two Angel’s Share alum, Shigefumi Kabashima and Tetsuo Hasegawa, that opened in 2017. Show up before 7 p.m. to take advantage of the happy hour, when a half-dozen varieties of East Coast oysters are just $1.50 each. Then stick around for a bowl of Kyoto ramen, with a funky fish-laced broth, garlic oil, and pork belly. Co-bartender Joji Watanabe’s draws on his days at Experimental Cocktail Club for scene-stealing drinks served in ceramic skulls and other elaborate presentations.
When a craving strikes in Midtown after midnight, Donburiya is there to the rescue with good and greasy fare until 2:30 a.m. almost every night of the week. The unpretentious vibe and solid roster of katsu curries and other dishes have made this a longtime favorite haunt of Japanese expats. The donburi, or rice bowls, topped with garlicky stir-fried beef or crispy tempura are a safe bet. Don’t miss the sizzling crab omelet.
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Owner Ryuichi “Bobby” Munekata has built up a small empire of Japanese restaurants throughout New York, and this second-floor, yakitori-slinging sibling restaurant is good enough that the late Anthony Bourdain once took Anderson Cooper here for dinner. At Yakitori Totto, which opened in 2003, skewers of hearts, gizzards, and shishito-stuffed meatballs made from upstate New York chickens have just the right amount of char. Munekata also owns Totto Ramen, which remains a serious contender in the city’s ever-expanding ramen scene with its creamy, paitan-brothed bowls.
Before Ken Mukohata purchased this space in 2010, it was home to a private, members-only club catering to hard-drinking Japanese salarymen. While Tomi Jazz is now open to everyone, its tricky-to-find entrance below street level still gives it an exclusive vibe. The food is fine, but the exceptional lineup of live musicians is the real reason the joint is constantly packed. Show up early between 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday through Friday to score one of the few free seats and take advantage of the happy hour.
Yakitori is the name of the game at this casual 70-plus-seater in Nomad. Head chef Daichi Tokuda and his crew break down whole chickens daily and use all the parts — anything not sizzled on the grill gets chucked into stock for ramen. The menu includes everything from grilled romaine to fully loaded sushi rolls like the Nonono, with cod roe, tuna, avocado, pickled radish, and spicy cod roe. Nonono, opened in 2018, is the latest project from restaurateur Kihyun Lee, who earned rave reviews for Her Name Is Han.
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When it first arrived on Queens Boulevard back in 1975, Ariyoshi catered almost exclusively to Japanese business travelers. Over the decades, the clientele has shifted and the restaurant says that the menu has broadened to accommodate American palates. It remains a popular neighborhood stalwart, thanks to its expansive selection of reliably executed staples and affordable price — virtually nothing here is over $20.
From the handmade ceramics sourced from Greenpoint to the rotating displays of works by local artists, every element of Takumen shows careful consideration. Chef Kiyo Shinoki, a veteran of Bar Goto, plays fast and loose with culinary conventions for dishes like Cajun-tinged tako-octopus. Order the “secret” guacamole — supposedly from a recipe shared by a Mexican line cook — with housemade potato chips. The bright interior design comes courtesy of Kiyo’s wife Sachiko Shinoki, who drew inspiration from a California road trip before opening in 2017.
Tokyo Record Bar
Owner Ariel Arce opened this bar in Greenwich Village in 2017, inspired by the legendary JBS in Shibuya and other Japanese jazz kissaten, or jazz cafes. During their prix-fixe dinners, patrons at Tokyo Record Bar listen to the warm crackle of a custom playlist spun on vinyl. At $50 a head, the set menu is a reasonable deal, but it’s equally enjoyable to swing by after 10:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday for DJ sessions and a la carte snacks like king crab legs dripping with yuzu miso butter or head-on prawns dunked in horseradish-spiked aioli. Reservations are essential for snagging one of the 18 seats.
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The arrival of Sakagura East Village in 2018 is a boon for those unwilling to make the trek to the basement of an office building in Midtown for the original location. Like Sake Bar Decibel — also opened by restaurateur Bon Yagi — this izakaya features an extensive, well-chosen sake selection. The food here is noticeably more refined, with highlights including a wobbly, snow crab-studded chawanmushi custard and the vinegar-marinated eel with cucumbers.
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Sake Bar Decibel
Be prepared to wait in line — especially on weekends — to enter this subterranean, graffiti-covered bunker. Although a thoughtfully chosen sake list is no longer the novelty it was when Sake Bar Decibel opened its doors in the East Village in 1993, the roughly 100-bottle selection here still stands out. Knowledgeable staff are happy to steer novices and connoisseurs alike. Uncomplicated drinking snacks like the syrupy, savory unagi are ideal for soaking up the booze.
It may be a spartan sliver of a restaurant, but Izakaya’s food surpasses its modest decor. Yudai Kanayama, an expat from Sapporo who came to New York to study fashion, opened this casual spot in the East Village in 2015. The menu is heavy on Japanese comfort dishes, with a few nods to chef and co-owner Dai Watanabe’s time spent in a pizzeria outside Naples. Order the cabbage and the chicken nanban, which is fried to a crisp, soaked in vinegar, and served with a tartar-like sauce.
If a ramen special with spicy shredded pork swimming in a miso broth happens to be on the menu one night at Wanpaku, order it. If not, a version with slow-braised beef ribs is sure to satisfy, as is a pork katsu curry someone had the ingenious idea to top with a scotch egg. After dinner, walk through the spare, brightly lit interior past the kitchen and go for a drink at the Hidden Pearl. Inspiration comes from Okinawa at the 18-seat cocktail bar opened in 2018.
There’s a good reason the bartending staff here exhibit such fanatical attention to detail. Kenta Goto cut his teeth at Tokyo’s revered Pegu Club before opening Bar Goto in 2015. The sleek interior would feel right at home in one of the Japanese capital’s watering holes. Cocktails are the star of the show here, but the black sesame-speckled miso chicken wings and okonomiyaki varieties are good enough to threaten to upstage.
Unlike its swish older sibling restaurant Yopparai, which was opened by the same husband-and-wife pair, Azasu adheres to the original frills-free spirit of an izakaya. Communal tables, affordable prices, and knockout dishes like springy octopus takoyaki and tableside sake-steamed clams made this an instant Lower East Side classic from the moment it opened in 2014. It’s hard to order wrong, but for something out of the ordinary, go for the chanko nabe, a hearty stew favored by sumo wrestlers. Wash it down with a round of sake, served in individual glass jars.
It’s no accident that the name “Yopparai” literally translates to “drunkard” — sake is front-and-center at this 30-seater on the LES. Gaku Shibata, a sommelier from Tokyo who opened the bar in 2012 with his wife Christy, is still often on the floor to help customers choose from more than 50 bottles, many of them rare. Addictive tsukune, or yolk-topped chicken meatballs, and generous cuts of sashimi can more than stand up to the drinks list.
Sequestered behind a door in the back of Walter’s, this dimly lit speakeasy in Fort Greene could easily coast on its drop-dead sexy ambiance and serious cocktails. Chefs Yael Peet and Elena Yamamoto ensure that Karasu is just as much of a destination for dining as it is for drinking, though. Since 2016, the duo have been serving small plates like an heirloom tomato gazpacho with sansho pepper and kaffir lime oil. One thing that almost never goes off the menu is the koji-rubbed rib-eye for two that the Times once likened to Peter Luger’s steaks.
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