TASTEMAKERS

Why You Need to Know What an Izakaya Is

Ireland has pubs; Spain has tapas bars. Japan has izakayas—and they’re taking over the world.

Toronto izakaya

The dining room at Guu Toronto.

(Gabriel Li)

For a long time, sushi and tempura were the only Japanese foods North Americans were familiar with," says Toronto-based chef Masaru Ogasawara. "But in Japan, izakayas are much more popular. They're where locals all go after work to sip beer and share appetizers with friends." A word that roughly translates to mean a sake shop where you can sit down and have a bite, izakayas are informal Japanese tapas joints where plates are meant to be passed and the boisterous vibe recalls happy hour—whatever the hour.

Over the past year, more than a dozen izakayas have opened across North America—from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco—expanding our otherwise narrow impression of prim Japanese cuisine into something authentically and awesomely chaotic. Ogasawara is the head chef and manager at Guu Toronto, a 63-seat izakaya that's been drawing serious crowds since it opened a year ago. Part of Guu's appeal, says Elaine Kwok, a Toronto native who reviewed the restaurant for Yelp, comes from its foreign feeling. Upon entering, guests are greeted with hot towels and a cheerful hello (irasshaimase!) from the almost entirely Japanese staff. Guu's 4,000-square-foot room is decorated with retro posters advertising tobacco, miso, and rice. Diners squeeze around communal tables made of reclaimed local wood, order pints of Sapporo on tap, and select from 45 items on the menu, including grilled black cod with miso, fried pumpkin croquettes, and marinated jellyfish.

"Technically, you're not traveling anywhere when you go there," Kwok says, "but you'll feel like you're in another world." Guu opened its second Toronto location on Bloor Street in March. guu-izakaya.com, black cod $10, pint of Sapporo $5, no reservations.

 

Four More Innovative Izakayas

Denver
A mile-high trailblazer (since 2007), Izakaya Den puts a Western twist on traditional Japanese pub fare, serving kobe beef sliders alongside miso eggplant. izakayaden.net, sliders, $15.

Los Angeles
At Little Tokyo's Izakaya Fu-Ga, which opened last September, booths and wall-mounted TVs create a modern sports-bar feel. Along with Asian-fusion dishes like crispy rice topped with Ahi and tempura onion rings, the whisky selection is particularly stellar. izakayafu-ga.com, onion rings, $4.

San Francisco
Patrons pack into the 30-seat Izakaya Sozai, which opened in the Inner Sunset neighborhood last February, for grilled rice balls and what some consider to be the best ramen in the city. The secret? A cloudy pork broth that simmers for two days. izakayasozai.com, tonkotsu ramen, $8.

Washington, D.C.
Fired pork-belly skewers, Japanese pickles, and small-batch sake draw weekend crowds to Kushi, Mount Vernon Square's year-old izakaya and charcoal grill. eatkushi.tumblr.com, skewers, $4.50.

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