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!
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Sake (nihonshu)
- Beer (biiru)
- Cocktails (in some form such as chūhai)
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.