The izakaya is a traditional Japanese bar and grill. Traditionally a place where people gather after work to indulge in reasonably-priced food and drink, you’ll find these establishments all over Japan, in large cities as well as the smaller localities. Although there are many famous chains of izakaya with many available tables, the best, in my experience, are the smaller, privately-owned and operated izakaya you find on the side streets and in dark little alleys. With Japan’s disciplined tradition of respect and balance when it comes to food, you can’t go wrong, even with izakaya you’ve never been to before.
Izakayas almost always have Japanese beer on tap in addition to a good many Japanese standards in the way of alcohol, among which will always be shochu, sake, whiskey and wine. They often offer an excellent selection of the owner’s favorite local sake as well, and the staff tend to be very knowledgeable if asked for a recommendation.
They are also very eager to offer their recommendations in terms of food. Izakaya fare is typically made up of small dishes that everyone shares a little of, much like Spanish tapas. Some staples include edamame, tofu, chicken wings, kushi-katsu (Japanese kebabs), and sashimi. But each izakaya, especially the privately-owned ones, prepares its own food in-store, and features fresh specials nightly, so it’s always a good idea to inquire about the staff’s picks.
If you order everything a la carte, a typically bill at an izakaya will run you 2000 to 3500 yen. For larger groups of customers, many establishments will offer a set price for all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink, or both. For both, each person can expect to pay between 4000 and 5000 yen. In the case of all-you-can-eat, it’s always best to allow the staff to choose the menu, and they’ll of course let you make some special requests. The owner of my favorite izakaya in Japan knows I’m a huge fan of her kimchee-natto rice cakes, and automatically brings them out if they’re available when I’m around.
It’s quite common for people in Japan to patronize their favorite izakaya ritually, and close friendships with the izakaya staff are not uncommon for regular guests. Izakaya is a place people come to unwind and socialize, and the staff are truly professionals when it comes to making their guests feel comfortable in the true tradition of Japanese hospitality.