The concept of a Japanese izakaya is not a hard one to grasp: Bring friends in and enjoy all the sake and beer you could ever want, as plate after plate of small, shareable dishes arrive at your table all night. What else could you ask for? The simplicity and functionality of these izakayas is what has kept them going as a tradition in Japan for hundreds of years, and which is why Americans are finding a new way to relax as izakayas start to pop up across the country.
The izakaya began as humbly as any Costco, with sake shops in Japan handing out free samples of small plates to get customers to stay longer as they shopped around for favorite brands of rice wine. In fact, the name “izakaya” comes from the Japanese "i-," meaning to sit, and “zakaya,” meaning sake shop. Slowly, these sake shops started opening bars to accommodate the crowds gathering to eat and drink in their establishments and modern izakayas were born.
When it comes to izakayas, sake is king. It’s a safe bet that when drinking in an izakaya, sake will be served throughout the night, alternating with beer and the occasional shot of shoju (a distilled drink from Japan with a higher alcohol content than sake and less fruity overtones).
As for the food, izakayas are known for a very specialized kind of cuisine, usually revolving around simple, unfussy flavors and fried croquettes for mopping up the alcohol. The standard izakaya fare is usually yakitori — pieces of chicken grilled over charcoal on a skewer. Most of the time, very few parts of the chicken are wasted, with everything from gizzards and hearts to more tame meatballs and white meat on the menu.
Tofu dishes also play a big part, with izakayas focusing on serving the highest quality tofu with simple toppings, sometimes with broth. Overall, the dishes at izakayas are more than the sum of their parts, with grilled chicken reaching levels one didn’t think possible, making the drinking experience at izakayas all the more enjoyable.
Today, izakayas are on the rise in America as a new, affordable way to have fun and go out to eat exotic food without using up your whole bank account. These new izakayas still maintain the same focuses they had back in the very start — mainly good food, good drink, and good atmosphere — but each of these izakayas also brings something new to the table, ranging in variety from the fun and funky Gaku in Honolulu to the traditional Honda-Ya placed in the middle of Japantown in L.A. to even Lure in Chicago, which is half izakaya, half party-rave. While all of the izakayas on this list have the highest quality food and drink, their uniqueness is what ultimately brings them to the next level.
Within the variety of new-age izakayas there is a central theme: fun, and great food and drink, for a good price. So, next time your friends are looking for a place instead of the usual pub with the typical fried menu, check out the local izakaya, where you’re always greeted at the door over the sound of laughter, conversation, and “Kampai!”