The immense crowds, technicolor hoardings, and labyrinthine streets of Tokyo can bamboozle even seasoned travelers. But there exists a hidden side to the metropolis where an intimate bonhomie stands in stark relief to the noise and neon of the main drags. This is especially true when it comes to dining. Secreted among narrow alleys and arcades are an array of backdoor eateries, cozy bars, and tiny izakayas (Japanese pubs) serving some of the most authentic fare in the city.
Wedged at the end of an alley used for truck deliveries, this miniscule izakaya is the perfect spot for hot oden soup and sake on a cold Tokyo night. Open until 4.30am and serving carefully selected nihonshu (sake) paired with velvety onsen tamago (soft-cooked egg), shirako (cod milt) and crunchy menma (bamboo shoots)—all individually cooked in a complex dashi stock developed over the years—it is unlike any other oden haunt. Seasonal sashimi and regional delicacies like hotaru ika—the impossibly small firefly squid—showcase so much more than the humble surroundings would otherwise suggest. With seven counter seats and a Japanese-only menu, Hanatare is the real-deal izakaya to round out a night exploring the bars of the surrounding Shibuya district.
Address: 1-26-12 16, Ebisu, Shibuya
A polite yet clear-cut set of requests accompany this sardine eatery: “Please be respectful, please bring someone Japanese and PLEASE love sardines!” Stowed behind a ramshackle shopfront in the fringe-cool Hatagaya neighborhood, this unpolished diamond will ensure you never again feel indifferently about the humble sardine. Night after night they serve the fish in all manner of iterations: fatty sashimi, crisp-fried heads, and the game-changing tsumire shiru—filleted-to-order, hand-chopped sardine meatballs gently poached in dashi. Ice-cold draught beer and junmai sake strip back the omega-3’s while whatever is on TV hums away in the background.
Address: 1-6-5 Hatagaya, Shibuya
Being the ultimate perfectionists, the Japanese have even managed to master the French wine bar. Case in point: La Pioche, a cozy bistro that’s an unexpected find among office blocks near the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Its owner, Shinya-san, trained in the alpine Savoy region of France and returned with a passion for natural wine and French-inspired food. The deep cellar is laden with treasures and the food is hearty and delicious, flaunting small twists that bow to the motherland. Dimly lit and cypress-clad, with the smoky aroma of binchotan filling the room, La Pioche is off the radar in the best possible way.
Address: 1-18-1 Nihonbashi Kakigaracho, Chuo
Japanese culture is renowned for its fervent respect towards tradition and this onigiri (rice ball) establishment is testament to that virtue. Ensconced behind a petite doorway at the base of a nondescript apartment block, Yadoroku has been shaping and molding perfectly cooked onigiri since 1954. Shio ika (salted squid), yamagobo (pickled burdock root) and fumizuke (herring pickled in sake lees) are just a sample of the traditional fillings lost to time, but elevated so well here. You can order individually or choose a set which includes miso and hojicha (green tea).
Address: 3-9-10 Asakusa, Taito
This four-seat tsukemen (dipping noodle) spot is concealed behind the walls of a highly awarded French patisserie in the haberdashery district of Arakawa. The back-door operation makes densely chewy, hand-rolled noodles begging to be dredged though an intense shoyu and pork-based broth with sweet onions and a fatty slice of pork neck. Its chef, Yamazaki-san, trained at Taishoken—the cradle of tsukemen ramen—and has carried the tradition forward honorably in homage to his noodle master, Yamagishi-san.