tokyo: the drinking guide
The drinking scene in Tokyo (like many cities, all cities?) is incredibly diverse - from cheap beers to izakayas to beautiful cocktails that themselves range from super old school to intensely creative and exact. The following were our favorites (and one non-favorite), but do not include perhaps the most enjoyable: picking up a beer from your local 7-11 or jars of sake from any corner shop or department store.
Drinkers Alley in Shibuya (nonbei-yokocho): An alley of tiny bars, each with their own speciality and style. Bar Piano and Tamai Hanamori get written up a lot, but we just wandered into one based on the incredibly kind face of the proprietor and the enormous feathered hat of his friend. Within minutes, the 6-seater spot had crowded in a dozen faces all of whom cheered every time someone said "honeymoon!" Sake was poured from giant bottles, crisp wine passed around, and the architect next to me happily sliced into what appeared to be a very neatly packaged japanese baby bella.
The New York Bar at the Park Hyatt: Known now as The Lost in Translation bar. Sweeping views of Tokyo, live jazz, and the type of food and drink you'd expect -- oversized martini glasses and spiced nuts not excluded. Totally worth the price to feel so 90s and yet so Japanese and so lost.
Bar Gen Yamamoto: Easily in my top 3 favorites in Tokyo. A small bar tucked into a really charming area in Azubujuban (amazing name for a japanese neighborhood, no?), each detail is stunningly beautiful, as are the drinks. Choose from a 4 or 6 drink flight (a non-decision: 6 obviously), and Gen prepares each by hand, selecting a tiny glass, fruit or vegetable, and liquor you have likely never had. While we were there, this included mandarin with snap peas and milk vodka, watermelon with bean powder and shochu, and pomelo with wasabi and sparkling sake. Email Gen directly for reservations well in advance -- he's a self-proclaimed "Jersey boy" who worked for years in NY restaurants, so English is easy.
JBS Bar: Former salaryman opens tiny dive bar stacked with thousands upon thousands of records. Order a whiskey, sit at the bar, listen.
Tender Bar: I have a hard time even saying the name without cracking up. Tender Bar is an institution: an immaculately sleek space (as always, up several flights of stairs) in Ginza, with white tuxedoed bartenders, and graced by the presence of founder Kazuo Ueda, known as Mr. Hard Shake. The Hard Shake (and yes, it requires capitals) is a series of arm, wrist, and dare I say, hip, movements designed to perfectly aerate your drink. Was the drink anything special? Absolutely not. (Sacrelig, I know.) But was the vision of a stern-faced elderly Japanese man swiveling and gyrating with perfect concentration and ending with what may as well have been an "Ole!" completely worth the outrageous price? Absolutely.
Bar High Five: A few blocks from Tender exists a completely different vibe (aside from the elevator ride up a dark building, as always). When we poked our heads in and saw the number of tourists, we debated leaving, but seating was opening up, so we took a gamble and it turned out to be the best cocktails we had. It's a simple set up: you describe what you like (refreshing!) or a booze (japanese amaro!) or ingredient (yuzu!) you'd like included, they whip something up. Every 20 minutes or so they also drop off a surprisingly nice snack. It was young and smart and every round we learned something new (fun fact: instead of chilling their drinks, they freeze the bottles).
Ben Fiddich: Famous for its housemade campari and oil-painting-esque vibe. We had the incredibly Japanese experience of being informed by the bartender that the big boss was out on a trip to Italy so unfortunately he would be unable to serve the famous drink (only in Japan: where the apprentice has been working for dozens of years, but is not allowed to mix two liquors in a glass.) And still so worth it.
SKIP: Golden Gai. Every guidebook said to spend a night or two in the packed and winding streets, filled with tiny bars in Shinjuku. What they did not say, is not a single Japanese-speaking person could be found, and a block away even the infamous Robot Bar had a line of blondes out the door. It could've been an off night, but I suspect not.
Deserving of its own section, coffee in Tokyo is an art and also extremely delicious. We pulled a brooklyn yuppie and did the rounds of the bougiest spots (including, yes, Blue Bottle which is hilariously popular. I had a hard time refraining from trying to explain to all of them that we were regulars and asking if they knew all our local crew, but alas).
Favorites in order:
Switch Coffee - Off the canals in Meguro. Tiny, hip and by far the best espresso tonic we've ever had. Espresso was great too.
Fuglen - Scandinavian on the south side of Meiji gardens. Full of laptops and meet ups and totally delicious.
Bear Pond - So incredibly pretentious (no photos! stupidly named drinks!) but good lord those stupidly named drinks were delicious. I had something icey and sweet that tasted like coffee ice cream but the really good coffeey kind. (Note - there is another cafe called Bear Pond over in a crowded section of Shinjuku, but as far as I could tell it was just borrowing the name, not the coffee.) While in Shimokitazawa, check out the vintage stores if that's your thing, and please visit Fog Linen for the most lovely housewares, which was sadly closed upon our visit.
Kitsune - I was curious because I had seen dozens of carefully styled shots of their logo cups against Paris streets, and it was exactly as predicted - great design, fine coffee, and that was that.