WHAT IS AN IZAKAYA?
If I asked you to go to an izakaya, would you know what that is? If you do, my guess is that you are a millennial or younger, live in a metropolitan area and enjoy exploring ethnic foods. Izakayas aren’t a new concept to this country, but they are a departure from the norm for many Americans. Most are located in larger cities and frequented by millennials.
Izakayas are small casual Japanese bars. Every nationality has something similar. For example, the United Kingdom and Ireland have pubs, America has its corner bars and Spain has tapas. Simply put, an izakaya is a type of informal Japanese bar serving inexpensive sharable plates and alcoholic drinks, traditionally sake. Historically, they have a red paper lantern hanging close to the front door, countertop service and booths for seating. They are a casual place for Japanese workers to meet after work and relieve stress. For foodies, it’s best described as the Japanese gastropub; high-quality, but informal.
Izakaya breaks down to I = to stay and sakaya = a sake store, or a “stay in” sake store. Traditionally sake shops were purchase and leave, but slowly evolved into stay and drink it there. Sake bars were around long before the izakaya and were primarily geared to professional male workers. They are believed to have originated in the Edo period of Japan (1603 – 1868) when sake shop owners started to offer small regional snacks to enjoy with the sake. This still held true until the 1970’s when larger chains of izakayas started to open and targeted a much broader audience. This eventually evolved into larger scale izakayas geared to the general public. Today, izakayas are popular with everyone – patronized by men and women from all levels of society.
How Izakayas Work
The interiors can range from bright and cheery to dimly lit and low key. Most will have a high level of activity with many small groups chatting. It is still common for independent business owners to carry the tradition of red paper lanterns hanging out front, indicating this is a place for drinks and snacks. The menu can consist of many aspects, but is generally focused on small finger food meant to be shared with the outlier of ramen. Rarely is all the food ordered at once. Dining in an izakaya is an experience that unfolds as you enjoy the company at the table. Small plates and courses are added on with rounds of drinks.
Izakayas are great places to get a larger, deeper taste of Japanese foods because most of the offerings are meant to be shared. The menus are normally very diverse and contain something for every level of experience or prowess. In American terms, the izakaya experience would equate to a small gastropub happy hour where you go with a few friends to unwind with a drink and a few passable plates.
Standard Izakaya Menu Items
Izakayas are a small glimpse into a broader Japanese cuisine. Deeper than just ramen and sushi, they offer insights into flavor profiles and ingredients that you will find intriguing and flavorful!
- Edamame – Boiled soybeans with a soy sauce-based dip
- Tsukemono – Pickled vegetables
- Karaage – Fried chicken
- Tempura – Fried batter
- Sashimi / Sushi – Izakayas aren’t sushi establishments, but they will normally have sashimi and sushi on the menu
- Yakatori – Grilled skewers
- Rice and noodle dishes
Asenzya acknowledges COVID-19 has had a drastic impact on dine-in services. We encourage readers to educate themselves on the safety standards of any restaurant/establishment and choose to dine-in or take out at their own discretion.
WHERE THE RESEARCH WAS DONE:
Saki Bar Hagi 46
- ADDRESS: 358 W. 46th St., New York, NY 10036
- WEBSITE: http://www.hagi46.com/
- WHAT TO GET: Kurobuta (pork sausage), yakitori (skewered chicken), okonomiyaki (type of pancake).
- NOTES: This was just a few blocks away from Times Square, but I couldn’t have felt further away from a tourist trap. It was a great example of a tiny izakaya.
- ADDRESS: 327 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012
- WEBSITE: https://group.bishamon-ten.com/daikokuya/
- WHAT TO GET: Daikoku ramen.
- NOTES: This is a no frills, casual Japanese restaurant in the heart of little Tokyo in L.A., and it is the best ramen I’ve had in the country.
Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya
- ADDRESS: 1482 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60622
- WEBSITE: https://www.kizuki.com/
- WHAT TO GET: Ramen.
- NOTES: Good, but definitely specialized in ramen.
- ADDRESS: 1960 N. Damen Ave., Chicago, IL 60647
- WEBSITE: https://www.izakayamita.net/
- WHAT TO GET: Karaage (deep fried chicken) and takoyaki (octopus).
- NOTES: A very simple and delicious spot for a drink and bite.
- ADDRESS: 245 Eldridge St., New York, NY 10002
- WEBSITE: https://www.bargoto.com/
- WHAT TO GET: Okonomiyaki (type of pancake).
- NOTES: Bar Goto recently expanded into Brooklyn, too.
- ADDRESS: 211 E. 43rd St., New York, New York
- WEBSITE: https://sakagura.square.site/
- WHAT TO GET: Sake! They occasionally have flights of imports from Japan with a food pairing menu.
- NOTES: Cool place located in a large apartment building.