tokyo: all the things to eat
It's taken me literally months to write this post, but trimming down a 23-page google doc of restaurants takes time and a whole lot of angst over what should be considered essential. But: at long last, the work has been done, the decisions have been made, and here is a slightly-more-normal-sized list of places to eat on a first-time trip... while in a place with the three times the restaurants of new york.
Starting with the most obvious: sushi is Japanese yes, and Tokyo has plenty of it. As any article will tell you, the convenience stores alone will have better stuff than your average American restaurant. But because it's in such volume there are also 8,000 choices at every pricepoint, from the now infamous $500 meals that take 15 minutes, down to the corner store. We decided to go for one higher end but not insane meal at Sushi Iwa and had a really pleasant time. Quiet, nearly reverential, incredibly fresh.
Maisen: As I researched the trip, a major controversy emerged: where oh where was the top place for tonkatsu, or thin breaded pork? After weighing the virtual merits of Inaba Wako vs. Butagumi vs. Tonki vs. Kimukatsu over an embarrassing number of hours, I landed on Maisen, which has several locations throughout the city. We went for a lovely Sunday lunch at one of their depachika locations, which I'd recommend, but what I'd recommend far, far more is their pre-boxed sandwich sets to go. In the most perfectly efficient packaging possible, crisp tonkatsu is sandwiched on fluffy white bread with just a thin layer of sweet tonkatsu sauce. The happiest day I have ever had was our picnic in Ueno park, with our perfect sandwiches, a bottle of sake, insanely expensive strawberries (see below), and of course eighteen sweeties, more on those in a moment.
The basements of department stores (known as depachikas) are miraculous. They're scattered throughout the city, and totally worth spending a few hours in, wandering everything from the sweets counters (!) to fresh fish and impeccable cantaloupes. It's worth taking a few trips out of the city purely for the joy of picking up a picnic lunch of sushi and jarred sake.
For a full-on unagi or freshwater eel feast, I recommend Nodaiwa, located (classically) down a hallway and appearing to be across the floor from the infamous Jiro. It was one of those special meals where we were the only tourists in sight, and the set course with eel liver soup and perfect sweet-savory basted eel over rice with a sprinkle of sancho felt both homey and distinct in the best ways.
7-11: yes, all the snacks and sushi and all that are great (as they are at a several other chains, like Lawsons, known for fried chicken, and Family Mart, which was a just-off-a-midnight-flight-savior), but the winner here was 7-11's aloe yogurt - vanilla-y yogurt with cubes of aloe jello. It was cooling and hangover's dream.
Ramen: There are a million amazing possibilities for ramen. With only a short amount of time in the city though, I knew there could be no messing around and one would have to be selected. Hours of deliberation later, I landed at Afuri, complete with a vending-machine-style ordering system and most delicious yuzu broth. Totally worth it, zero regrets.
Izakaya: On recommendation from friends (thanks guys!) we had one of our best meals at Tatemichiya, known as the punk rock izakaya. Like all izakayas, they have a huge range of small plates, from fried chicken skin yakitori (amazing) to sashimi to grilled avocado, but unlike most the vibe is dive beer with awesome music. Keep an eye out for graffiti from famous artist Yoshitomo Nara.
Muesli at the Park Hyatt: A tip from the ladies of Of A Kind, the muesli did not disappoint. A great way to start a day where you plan to eat enormous quantities of, well, everything.
Fruits!: I have few regrets in life, but one of them is not purchasing a $45 packet of strawberries. Because the thing is, the $12 stick of them was so, so incredibly sweet and strawberry-y that I'm quite sure it would have been 1000% worth it. So yeah: the fruit is hysterically pristine and individually packaged and looks like it must be fake (and there is an awful lot of amazing fake food you can buy), but it's also delicious.
Tempura: I was determined to have at least one tempura meal, and good lord I wish we had had more -- and at the same spot. Momose is a tiny basement restaurant known for its unagi (eel) tempura, which you can get on a pile of rice, covered in sesame and furikake, and then piled high with seaweed. Totally epic. Note that despite their size, they take reservations for dinner (learned that one the hard way!), and lunch fills up fast -- go early.
I love Japanese breakfast (Okonomi in Wiliamsburg is incredible), and fell in love with Yukumo Saryo after coming across it via Wallpaper. Pass through a garden into what appears to be an art gallery and then into a beautiful open room, with a window out into greenery. Each course was precise, and beautiful, and delicate as can be. Pro tip though: when they come around with a tray of impeccable mochi for dessert, note that they are merely options and do not look incredibly delighted and reach for the entire batch.
Tokyo is not actually a town known for gyoza, but I really, really love gyoza and the man had old memories of inhaling them on a college trip, and so we found ourselves at Harajuku Gyoza Ro, a buzzing lunch-only spot in Omotesando. Probably the most touristy spot we went, but totally fun -- ordering up fried and boiled versions, eat a spicy sprout salad, and of course top it off with a beer.
Ebisu yokocho: We popped in our last night, and it turned out to be one of the most memorable. Ebisu is an area I'd love to spend more time in - further from the tourists, tons of great food, young. Ebisu yokocho is a sprawling floor of mini eating spots -- effectively a food court done right. On a Friday night, it was packed with post-work groups. We fought our way into plastic seats at one of the busiest and then just started pointing at what everyone else had, from soft tofu to unidentifiable meat sauce. The college girls sharing our table were delighted when we, too, ordered the bright green fizzy drink (spoiler: matcha flavored sochu) and cheered when they learned we were on our honeymoon.
Things on sticks: Omoide Yokocho in Shinjuku is an alley of tiny yakitori spots, each with a specialty. Look for those that are packed (and not packed with tourists), fight your way in, order a beer, and then let the chef serve you whatever he feels like serving you. Totally fun, and totally packed (mostly with tourists). Also packed, but somewhat less touristy is tachigui sakaba buri, a mostly bar known for its selection of nearly-frozen sake jars. They also offer a range of yakitori and while they may not blow you away, they are super enjoyable, and well frozen sake.
Taiyaki: If there is one thing that I truly love in life, it is a taiyaki: fresh waffles filled with redbean paste IN THE SHAPE OF A FISH. There is nothing more charming, and nothing so perfectly just-sweet to end a meal (or go in-between a meal, or frankly be a meal). Naniwaya in the amazingly named Azabubujan neighborhood near Roppongi has been making them for over a century. Stop by, give your order (a minimum of two, because why live if you only get one), then return twenty minutes later to perfectly fresh and hot fishies. Stand in the street and immediately immediately.
Pancakes at Bills: Fun fact: pancakes are hilariously hip in Japan. Their variety tends to be smaller and fluffier -- imagine a deeper pancake with a slightly lighter consistency. The mecca of them all is Bills, an Australian chain with an outpost in Omotesando. Their ricotta pancakes served with banana are one of the most highly Instagrammed foods in Tokyo, at least based on the scene when we were there. I'd strongly recommend going at an off-hour -- we snuck in super early morning before our flight out (pro tip: do NOT get in the line in front of the building. If you sneak around to the left there is an elevator which will take you directly to Bills, no waiting needed!).
On the wish list, because a week wasn't enough: Breizh cafe -- a favorite place for Brittany-style crepes in Paris -- has a location in Omotesando. Den seemed to be the top ticket in town for dinner - imagine the NY reservations system but way, way more exclusive (if you can find your way in though: sounds incredible.)