Tokyo Insider Guide: How to Eat Like a Local
With tens of thousands of restaurants, the food scene in Tokyo is hard to pin down. It’s constantly changing and ever-evolving, and has a plate for every palate — you could dine at a new place three times a day for the rest of your life and not get through them all.
That many options may feel daunting, but you can rest assured that the use of high-quality, fresh ingredients, as well as an eye for presentation, are near universal. Whether you like cheap and cheerful chow or fine dining, sipping sake or sampling sweets, there’s a Tokyo joint — or 10 — for you. Below, we profile a few different categories of cuisine and a whole bunch of recommended spots to get you dreaming about a culinary tour of Tokyo.
Bonus: With a tourist visa no longer necessary for US citizens as of October 11, 2022, now is the best time to plan your visit.
B-kyu-gurume or “B Gourmet” food is the name for common, popular meals that are tasty, good value, and unpretentious. Each region of Japan has local favorites, but think dishes like ramen, Japanese curry, yakisoba, or katsu-don (fried pork cutlets on rice).
You can, of course, find many kinds of ramen in the nation’s capital, but Tokyo’s signature bowl is shoyu (soy sauce) ramen. Harukiya in Ogikubo has been in business since the 1940s and is a staunch favorite, making thin wheat noodles onsite daily. The broth is light, made from pork, chicken, and sardines, and the basic bowl is topped with chewy chashu pork slices and bamboo shoots.
For people who have dietary restrictions but still want the pleasure of a piping hot bowl of noodles, head to the Shibuya location of Shinbu Sakiya, known in English as Samurai Noodle. The two-story shop offers gluten-free, vegan, and halal-friendly bowls. Try the spicy miso, topped with corn and scallions. Pay at the ticket machine, hand the ticket to the staff, then head upstairs to nab a table and paper apron in preparation for a satisfying slurp.
Another noodle with a long history in Tokyo is made from humble buckwheat, or soba. This filling favorite is served to perfection at Kyourakutei, a venerable soba shop with a Michelin Bib Gourmand distinction. Here, a soba lunch includes noodles made from buckwheat flour (stone-ground onsite and hand-formed each day), artisan Shodoshima soy sauce, and real Izu wasabi. Splurge on the tempura set with delicately fried seasonal vegetables and seafood.
The popularity of plant-based food is on the rise, and with it comes an explosion of options in Tokyo compared to a decade ago. You’ll find a mix of international favorites like burgers and falafel, as well as veganized and plant-heavy local dishes.
Want to try heirloom vegetables that have been grown in Tokyo for hundreds of years? Oshiage Yoshikatsu serves Edo-Tokyo vegetables such as komatsuna (Japanese mustard spinach) and daikon (a type of radish) in a reasonably priced, beautifully presented set meal. The restaurant focuses on historic Tokyo specialties and local, heritage ingredients.
PLANT BASED TOKYO, inside the Food Hall Blast! food court in Shinjuku, opened in 2021 with a handful of Asian-fusion dishes supplemented by bright salads and multigrain-dotted rice. Pair your meal with a domestic craft brew from Craft Pub Bevvy in the same building.
Mr. Farmer has half a dozen locations in the Tokyo area and spotlights domestic produce from farmers around Japan. The Omotesando café reopened in 2022 as a vegan-only location, while the other locations have both vegan and omnivore menu choices. Try the vegan fried chicken with teriyaki ginger sauce and brown rice.
Immerse yourself in teamLab’s artwork while devouring all-vegan fare at Vegan Ramen UZU Tokyo at teamLab Planets. The cold Vegan Ramen Hana (flower) is visually stunning, covered with edible flowers inspired by the Floating Flower Garden installation inside the museum.
If you can get reservations, you can’t go wrong with Kanda, a three-star Michelin restaurant recently moved from Azabu to Toranomon. Owner/Chef Hiroyuki Kanda adds contemporary twists to a classic genre, such as incorporating truffles into the freshest seasonal dishes.
At Sushi Shin, a taste of the divine may be a little easier to come by with the more affordable lunch course or luxury bento box, but for the full experience, go for the omakase dinner course. The one-star Michelin restaurant serves superb bites such as baby sea bream, horse mackerel, and grilled scallops.
For the full-course Japanese haute-cuisine experience, turn to kaiseki, a symphony of seasonal flavors, textures, and colors, all carefully prepared and exquisitely presented. At Tsurutokame, the team of female chefs create playful courses that explore peak seasonal vegetables and seafood with curiosity and creativity. They’ll even make vegetarian courses upon advance request.
Chef Daisuke Nomura serves Buddhist-style shojin ryori, or devotional cuisine, at Sougo in Roppongi. Choose between nine or 12 courses, and either pure vegan or vegetable-forward options that contain dairy, egg, and fish-based dashi seasoning base.
Pizza is literally elevated at The Pizza Bar on 38th at the Mandarin Oriental. Named Japan’s top pizzeria, third in Asia, and 16th in the world by “50 Top Pizza World 2022,” this spot is also a Michelin Bib Gourmand pick. Chef Daniele Cason’s set menu highlighting Japanese ingredients changes with the micro-seasons and puts the spotlight on domestic ingredients such as organic kabocha squash, Japanese figs, and wild mushrooms.
Tempura is deceptively simple to eat: the freshest vegetables and seafood, fried to crispy perfection with a thin coating of batter. Cooking it is messy, finicky, and best left to the experts, such as those at Tempura Motoyoshi, where they know how to get it just right and have a one-star Michelin rating to show for it.
The understated entrance on the ground floor of The Tokyo EDITION, Toranomon makes the Gold Bar at EDITION feel a bit mysterious, like a speakeasy or a members-only club. Opened in 2022, the sleek and sexy interior holds low-slung seating, black and gold accents, and high ceilings. While grooving to the DJ’s laid-back tunes on the weekends, try an intricate cocktail like the Mori Sling, featuring rum, natsumeyashi (date palm), and basil.
Bar Trench in Ebisu is consistently ranked among Asia’s 50 Best Bars. In this intimate, brick-, wood-, and glass-accented space, you’ll find finely crafted cocktails, experimental flavors derived from herbs and liqueurs, and an excellently curated whisky selection.
The izakaya is Japan’s answer to a gastropub, providing a parade of tasty dishes to pair with your drinks. Perhaps most fun is to hop from bar to bar in a warren of pedestrian streets, sampling a house specialty at one and grabbing a recommended sake flight at another.
These bar districts are all over the city, but the triangular section of shops and restaurants in Sangenjaya’s Sankaku Chitai to the southwest of Sangenjaya station and Shinjuku Golden Gai remain under the radar and are a fun way to spend an evening.
Mocktails and the sober curious movement
A burgeoning interest in non-alcoholic beers and cocktails has led to a number of companies releasing alcohol-free products, and many establishments are now explicitly catering to the alcohol-free crowd.
The 0% Non-Alcohol Experience opened in 2020 from the star owners of the SG Club. The bar seeks to offer not only a drink, but an immersive and artistic visit, with cocktails that titillate the senses. Try the Hinky Soda, made from grapefruit, cranberry, maka, and (non-al) champagne. The food menu is all vegan with choices like cauliflower quesadillas and ratatouille.
Over at The Peninsula Tokyo’s Peter: The Bar, the famed hotel has developed a Zero-Proof menu with a lineup of stunning and sophisticated cocktails such as the Spicy Fizz with cardamom, coriander seed, pink pepper, triple sec, and lime juice.
Coffee, tea, or soft drink
Opened in May 2022, Ash – æ is a zero-waste coffee bar in Shibuya. You won’t find takeout cups or little plastic stirring sticks here, but rather a short, perfectly executed menu of coffees and cocktails. Try the classic café latte with a side of Okinawan brown sugar mixed with cacao or an espresso martini served in beautiful glassware.
If you’re looking for a solid selection of Japanese teas and beyond, Kagurazaka Saryo is a stylish teahouse in a traditional wooden machiya townhouse, where Tokyoites linger and gossip over matcha parfaits and pots of roasted green teas.
Tapioca tea, as it’s known in Japan (bubble tea or boba tea elsewhere), has made a big comeback in the last few years in Tokyo, so much so that there’s a new Japanese verb for drinking (eating) the “chewy” tea: tapiru. At The Alley, sample the latest trends in tapioca, like a brown sugar tapioca matcha latte, with the café’s own house-made cane sugar syrup and freshly roasted tea leaves.
Having a wander followed by a snack is probably the best way to explore Tokyo. Walk, nosh, repeat.
The YanakaGinza area in northern Tokyo is filled with classic shopping streets, where pedestrians are still king and small local businesses have been plying their wares for decades. In between browsing for trinkets and picking up vegetables for dinner, try freshly roasted chestnuts at Waguriya.
Another fascinating shopping street is Nakamise, right in front of what might be Tokyo’s most famous temple, Sensoji. One main street leads up to the temple, and it’s flanked by a maze of smaller streets also filled with souvenirs, devotional objects, and street food. While you browse, crunch into just-made rice crackers at Morita.
A sweet reward
After a long day of touring, it’s time for a little treat. The swanky Ginza neighborhood is the perfect setting to indulge in a gorgeous parfait at Shiseido Parlour. The classic strawberry parfait is decadent and perfect, with glistening berries at the peak of their sweetness and color, layered with ice cream, fresh whipped cream, and strawberry sauce.
For a refreshing interlude during the hot summer months, head to Himitsudo, a cute shop in the YanakaGinza area serving up generously sized traditional kakigori (shaved ice). All the fruit syrups are handmade in-house with peak-season fruit. The menu changes daily, but you might find flavors like peach earl grey or Nagano purple grape.
Stopping for teatime at Higashiya Ginza is a refined, meditative experience. The minimalist décor is the backdrop for an upscale wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) course, expertly paired with the finest Japanese green teas available. Tea and design aficionados will want to return again and again.