Have you ever had one of those days where you don’t have enough energy to lift a spatula? Or there’s nothing in the refrigerator? That means it’s time to go out and grab something to eat.
Tokyo has so many restaurants… actually, too many restaurants. Sometimes you might spend more energy trying to decide where to eat than if you’d just stayed home and cooked! On my first trip to Japan I almost starved trying to figure out where to eat. Maybe that last sentence is a little overdramatic, but finding a restaurant in Japan is completely different than finding a restaurant in the West.
Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover
When traveling the States I could usually spot a good restaurant by the size of the shop and the size of the sign. Suburban residents travel everywhere by car; therefore, real-estate by the main roads is key to a restaurant’s survival. This essential real-estate usually comes with a hefty price tag so it is safe to assume that only restaurants which produce enough revenue can afford these spots. A large amount of revenue means a large amount of salads, sandwiches, and sodas get served to a large amount of customers. So the restaurant normally has to be good.
In Japan, especially the large metropolises like Tokyo, the size of the restaurant doesn’t vary much because real-estate is not only hard to find, it is a luxury that comes with a premium. There are restaurants located in all nooks and crannies of shopping plazas, office buildings, and subway stations. A random door in an alleyway can yield some of the tastiest ramen or sushi that you have ever tasted.
Specialty vs. Family Style Restaurants
Have you ever been to a restaurant and, even though you weren’t in the mood to eat, you just got a salad? It seems like many restaurants in the States went through this lettuce revolution when customers started tracking their calorie intake. Besides the diverse main fare, nearly all Western restaurants either offer several different types of salads or have a salad bar. Unfortunately for those veggie fans out there, Japan doesn’t come with a side salad.
Restaurants in Japan can be broken down into two groups: specialty and family style. If you are looking for real (read exceptionally good) Japanese foods, most will be in a specialty restaurant; they serve a certain type of food and that’s it. If you go to a ramen restaurant, they only serve ramen, no salad, no desert, no side vegetable, just ramen. If you go to a tempura restaurant they only serve tempura fried things, again, no salad, no fries, and no desert. But if you really want the desert you can go to a parfait shop where, you guessed it, they only serve parfaits.
These restaurants are great because they make one thing and they make it really, really well. The drawback is when you have a family that has different tastes and all want different things. That’s when you must forage at a family restaurant.
Family restaurants are, like the name implies, restaurants that offer a wide variety of foods targeted at those who can’t agree on what to eat. The restaurants do tend to have themes like Italian and American and also offer a variety of dishes. The biggest drawback to family restaurants is the quality of food.
Specialty restaurants are always in constant competition and rely on taste to keep customers coming back. Family restaurants target those who want to save money and still feed a family of five or for those who cannot agree on the meal. So they provide an assortment of meals to appease the masses and they can cut the number of spices and the freshness of their ingredients to keep the prices low.
The Internet is Your Friend
Before the Internet, finding a good restaurant was simple: you asked around. Word of mouth provided you with the best place to eat the local specialty. Truth be told, that hasn’t changed, just the medium in which we relay that information. Now finding a restaurant is as simple as pulling out your phone and reading a few blogs.
When searching for a good place to eat I usually like to visit the Japanese website Tabelog. Tabelog is a restaurant review site where people not only review the food and service but also upload pictures and menus to the site. Google reviews tend to be a hit or miss because fewer people are reviewing places than on Tabelog. Tabelog is offered in both English and Japanese but all the reviews tend to be in Japanese, so if you don’t know Japanese you can use the star rating and pictures to decide if you want to eat there.
One of my favorite methods to find a good restaurant is blog post rankings. Foodies love ranking restaurants and if you are craving a certain type of dish, like spicy ramen, you can always find a Top 10 blog post on the web. I frequently use this method and locate the restaurants that have the highest occurrence among all the blogs. If you know Japanese try it out sometime. You will probably find a great hole-in-the-wall restaurant.
Like I said before: there are too many restaurants in the metropolitan areas like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. People have different rubrics in which they judge how good a restaurant is, and is not. If a place has a long line it might be a good place, or it might be just a popular place. Finding a good place to eat sometimes feels like a spin of the roulette wheel. Hopefully with some of this information on hand you won’t starve in Japan! Good luck!
Software Engineer and Blogger at TalentHub
Usually coding, writing, or exploring Japan.
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