From robot restaurants and owl cafes, to cuddle bars and Harajuku Girl waitresses, Tokyo takes modern dining to bonkers levels. In just four days I ate a “poison cake,” had an entirely automated ramen experience, and drank something called the Mad Scientist while sitting beneath a neon pink horse who himself was drinking from a gallon-sized baby bottle. Though delightfully deranged, these experiences left me wondering if there was any old school dining left to be had in this madhouse city.
…which, of course, is a ridiculous notion because this is Japan we are talking about and the only thing the Japanese are more obsessed with than modernity, is tradition. World-class temples of cuisine are found throughout Tokyo, hidden everywhere from train station basements and alleyways, to non-descript office buildings. The best tend to focus on a singular technique and are helmed by a master whose life’s work is dedicated to the quiet perfection and preservation of a skill rather than personal notoriety.
Think about it. When’s the last time you’ve been to any restaurant with notably good food that doesn’t also maintain some sort of social media platform. How about a restaurant that’s been owned by one family for generations but hasn’t been written up in a major publication? What about a place with lines out the door whose kitchen staff are all over the age of 60? In the age of dedicated food news sites and chefs with their own prescription-grade eyewear line, it seems an anomaly that this subtle, ego-less world exists. But just like that pink horse head, it does – and I like it.
Here are three stellar traditional restaurants in Tokyo you should check out before you dive into the neon nightlife:
Charcoal-fueled smoke overwhelms this tiny temple of skewers and draws long lines of people eager to take down all manner of chicken parts, be it heart, neck, or the part “above the knee and below the butt.” Go for the tasting menu and sit at the bar to watch a true master* transform little bits of bird into nuggets worth raving about.
Who knew that the holy grail for deep-fried heritage pork would be found in a converted, WWII bath house? “Superior” cuts are always on offer here (think Iberico and Berkshire), but even the standard tonkatsu proves just how succulent the other white meat can be.
Established in 1913, this gorgeous Edo-style restaurant is a serene hideaway from the bustle of nearby Asakusa. Here, soba noodles are made by hand using 100% buckwheat flour milled each morning, and are served simply so as to allow the nutty flavor of the grain to shine. Try the plain, cold noodles with soy-based dipping sauce, or opt for a brothy soba soup topped with fluffy steamed egg.
*Who is this master? I read one blog that said he’s a third generation yakitori god, and another which put his age at 95. Are these rumors true? What’s his name? Does he have a twitter handle?! I’ll keep digging, but if you have any insight, do share.