izakaya – a new trend or a lasting option?

What is old is new again in San Francisco and beyond.  In the last year or so, izakaya’s have been popping up throughout San Francisco.  In my neighborhood alone, within the last few months two have sprung  to life.  Not that I am complaining, and neither is my husband for on a recent visit he came away swearing we must make weekly pilgrimages for the fried oysters alone.

An izakaya is a type of Japanese casual dining that if you think of the Japanese equivalent of tapas joint you’d be close – a place developed to keep people around to consume drink.  As you might imagine, they are popular places primarily for the after-work drinking and socializing.  I have a sweet spot in my heart for izakayas, as one such place was my first stop after setting foot in Japan and I still remember how tasty the food, not to mention the warm glow from the shōchū.  Not to mention that the fact for this girl from Minnesota on her first trip abroad thought this experience all incredibly exotic and adventurous!

drawn by the red lantern

The expression “izakaya” is a compound word consisting of “i” (to stay) + “sakaya” (sake shop).  This is a broad hint to izakayas origins of sake shops that shrewdly enticing customers to stay and drink while consuming food site.  Alternatively, they may be known as akachōchin (red lantern) as these paper lanterns are traditionally found in front of an izakaya, and in Japan can refer to non chain izakaya’s.

the aforementioned fried oyster(s)

What You Might Expect

Most izakayas in the States deviate from the tradition of requiring customers to sit on tatami mats and dine from low tables in the traditional Japanese style, and opt for the familiar chairs and tables.  Once seated, the dinner is often given an oshibori (wet towel) with which to clean your hands, and this may be followed by a snack or appetizer.

Start by ordering your beverage of choice accompanied by whatever strikes your fancy and then sit back and prepare to have your taste buds tickled.  The menus are typically divided into sections, so if you are new to an izakaya ordering, you cannot go wrong sampling from each section, all in the name of research until you know what holds the greatest appeal.

tasty goyzas

In the US, dinner can expect menus to be brought to the table, with photos of the individual dishes.  Unfortunately, many times the picture and the name (usually just the Japanese name) do not state the ingredients and ordering takes longer as the server must explain what is in the dish.  Another difference is that the plates are also small by US standards, and the quantity pictured in the menu often is more generous than what shows up at the table.  Like most tapas or dim sum places, the dinners select an assortment of plates to share and they are encouraged to continue ordering throughout the visit.

Common formats for izakaya dining in Japan are known as nomihodai (“all you can drink”) and tabehodai (“all you can eat”), and are especially popular in large, chain izakaya. For a set price per person, customers can continue ordering as much food and / or drink as they wish, typically limited to a few hours.

choices are good

Sample of an izakaya menu

There are a wide variety of izakayas offering all sorts of dishes, but items almost always available in any izakaya are as follows:

Alcoholic drinks

  • Sake (nihonshu)
  • Beer (biiru)
  • Shōchū
  • Cocktails (in some form such as chūhai)
  • Wine
  • Whiskey

more options can be better

Food or Sakana

Izakaya food is designed to be shared.

  • Yakitori – grilled chicken skewers (can mean other proteins, but mainly associated with chicken)
  • Kushiyaki – grilled food skewers
  • Kushiage – deep fried food on skewers
  • Sashimi – slices of raw fish
  • Karage – bite-sized fried chicken
  • Edamame – boiled and salted soybean pods
  • Tofu such as hiyayakko (chilled silken tofu with toppings) or agedashi tofu (deep fried tofu in broth)
  • Agemono – fried dishes
  • Sumiyaki – charcoal grilled
  • Tsukemono – pickles
  • Chinmi – House Specials such as natto with kimchee or wasabi sea cucumber

Rice dishes such as ochazuke and noodle dishes such as yakisoba may finish off a drinking session.

Types of izakaya

Chain izakaya are popular as they offer a more expansive selection of food and drinks than can be found in the smaller mom- and-pop style establishments.

Cosplay izakaya are themed restaurants where the wait staff comes dressed up.  Popular themes include maids, butlers and apparently little sisters.

Yakitori-ya specialise in yakitori, where the skewers are often made to order.

Robatayaki are where customers sit around an open hearth on which chefs grill seafood and vegetables.  Customers select the fresh ingredients when they order.

If you’ve never tried an izakaya, this type of restaurant deserves to be checked out.  More ideas can be found here:

Japanese Izakaya – via Shizuoka Gourmet

Ju Ku – Izakaya in the ‘hood  (San Francisco)


Can’t make it to your local Izakaya? One of my favorite cookbooks for replicating a lot of the flavors is The Japanese Grill (from classic yakatori to steak, seafood and vegetables) by Tadashi Ono & Harris Salat.  The link offers a sampling of the wonderful writing and attention to detail that can be found in the book as well as some lip smacking good yakitori ideas.


Update me when site is updated

18 comments for “izakaya – a new trend or a lasting option?

  1. July 24, 2011 at 10:44 PM

    Very interesting! I never visited any Izakayas.



  2. July 25, 2011 at 2:33 PM

    Japanese is one of my very favorite cuisines and we have to locations here in OC. I have not been to one yet but I think I should 🙂

  3. July 25, 2011 at 10:35 PM

    Japanase “tapas” – so interesting! I don’t know if I’ve similar places here – but I’d like to try Izakaya food 🙂

    Have a great week!


  4. July 26, 2011 at 9:56 AM

    Oh it’s really popular here in Los Angeles too. I love izakaya…tapas have not died out yet, so why izakaya? I also love the fusion style ones. 🙂

  5. July 26, 2011 at 11:48 AM

    Sounds really fun! I wonder if there are Izakayas in DC area, would love to eat at one.

  6. July 26, 2011 at 2:07 PM

    LouAnn! I was just at Ju-ku last week! I was actually thinking about you when I went there. Have you heard about Ippuku in Berkeley? I haven’t been but it sounds like it’s worth the try!

  7. July 26, 2011 at 6:14 PM

    Awesome photos! Sounds like a great way to enjoy oysters!

  8. OysterCulture
    July 26, 2011 at 8:03 PM

    Rosa – If you ever get the opportunity, take it!

    MoS – I think you should too =)

    Gera – I can pretty much guarantee you will like it.

    Sophia – There is just something I love about the small plate thing, Glad you like them!

    5 Star – I cannot believe they have not made it to DC yet. Its only a matter of time.

    Kitchen M – How did you like it? Or shall I check your blog. I’ve heard of Ippuku and want to give it a try, unfortunately work has kept me so busy, the East Bay might as well be the East Coast.

    DeltavilleOysters – It was indeed.

  9. July 27, 2011 at 3:25 AM

    I have heard the word but never knew what it was! I love this kind of dining when it is a cuisine I am not too familiar with or a cuisine that is so varied you can’t choose just one thing. Love Japanese food and this looks just great!

  10. July 27, 2011 at 12:03 PM

    Izakayas sound really fun! I don’t think that I’ve been to one so far. Where in San Francisco do you enjoy going? Perhaps we can look out for them.

  11. July 27, 2011 at 4:13 PM

    I love Japanese food specially sushi or sashimi, but never had only “tapas”, will have to try next time. Love the information…always learning from you 🙂
    Hope you are having a wonderful week 🙂

  12. Yoko
    July 28, 2011 at 12:23 AM

    Happy to know that our Izakaya culture is spreading in the US.
    I live in Tokyo, and go to Izakaya with friends and co-workers a few times a week.
    Recent Izakaya trend in Tokyo is “private room” type. There are a lot of small to large size room inside of one Izakaya, and each group of people enjoy the privacy and Izakaya food in there. In this way, Izakaya can be used for company gathering, dating, and even popular place for matchmaking party! Hope everybody have a chance to visit Izakaya.

  13. July 31, 2011 at 8:29 AM

    Oh wow, I’ve never experienced a izakaya. Lucky you. That reminds me of the pastel place near our apartment in Brazil. Way too close and much too accessible. 🙂 Glad to know all about these for when we make it to Japan, likely in a couple years. Or to San Fran which will likely be sooner!

  14. August 3, 2011 at 7:08 AM

    Sounds like fun; since I know nothing of Japanese food and culture I would love to check these out!

  15. August 22, 2011 at 5:46 PM

    I tried izakaya once in LA and totally enjoyed it as I am the kind who like a variety of small bites. However, I have not found a good izakaya here in the South Bay. Do you know of any to recommend? I definitely miss izakaya and craving for a long time now.
    tigerfish recently posted..Sesame Asparagus Stir-Fry 清炒芦笋

  16. August 27, 2011 at 7:12 AM

    I am certain that we do not have an izakaya but I’d travel far for one of those gyoza.
    tammy recently posted..Note from a Friend

  17. OysterCulture
    August 27, 2011 at 9:10 AM

    Jamie, I bet these places might be popular in Paris, but I suspect that’s a bit of a haul for you, but a good excuse for a road trip? =)

    Stevie – I’m in the Richmond District in SF and we have a few here, the Ju-Ku I mentioned on 19th and Clement is tasty.

    Juliana – Having a good time, just not enough of it. I highly recommend giving them a try if you have not been able to,

    Lori – I love these sorts of places, and if your first try happens to be in SF, let me know and I’ll give you some suggestions.

    ToB – Definitely, and as you have family in SF, you will have a host of great options

    Tigerfish – I am not familiar with the South Bay, but if you come to SF, or Berkeley plenty of places come to mind.

    Tammy – I am with you, fortunately my traveling was only about 3 blocks.

    Yoko – How interesting to learn about this new trend. I am think the place we went to in Tokyo was small and our room was private or semi private. I do not think that was deliberate but more an indicator of how some the place was, but oh was the food tasty.

  18. Danielle
    October 24, 2013 at 8:35 PM

    I was wondering if you knew of any other izakaya cookbooks? I work in a Japanese tapas, izakaya, and sushi restaurant called Minoda’s Kabuto in Morehead City, NC. My boyfriend is the sushi chef here, and is interested in learning more about izakaya and looking for new recipes. He already has Izakaya The Japanese Pub, by Mark Robinson, but I was trying to find more books for him. I will be buying the one you suggested, but if you know of any others, I would appreciate the help. Thank you.

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