New Yorkers love to talk about how we live in the greatest restaurant city in the world, but going to Japan will change your whole perspective in a Tokyo second. I won’t pretend that visiting for 10 days—as I did just a few weeks ago—makes me anything more than a tourist who ate a bunch of incredible meals, and I’m not going to try to tell you how the food world works in Tokyo, because like everything else there, it is too vast and inscrutable to even begin to wrap your head around. But thanks to some excellent guidance from locals (most notably my girlfriend, Sarah, and her incredibly generous family), I did get to dip my feet into its culinary offerings, both humble (ramen!) and high-end (a Franco-Japanese chef’s table serving foie gras with uni), and I came away with a few insights into what makes Tokyo tick as a gastronomic powerhouse.
First of all, the sheer size (more than 13 million people) and density of the city means that the amount of places to eat, and the level of specialization within those offerings, is mind-boggling. Even in New York, it doesn’t take that much effort to keep tabs on the hot spots du jour, especially since they tend to congregate around a limited number of neighborhoods and their buzz is intensely media driven. In Japan, hype for a new restaurant doesn’t work in the same way. There are fads, certainly, but they tend to center around new concepts like pancakes or brunch, for example, and not so much chefs and restaurateurs. Moreover, those fads that do take hold move very quickly—while people get hyped up for seasonal items like Peppermint Mochas and McRibs here, chains such as Starbucks run a limited-edition menu item every couple weeks or so in Japan.
Another distinguishing feature is a general standard of quality across the board. No doubt you can get crappy, sloppily produced grub at innumerable places in Tokyo. But it’s telling that even convenience stores like 7-11 and Lawson’s have pretty tasty prepared foods (no heat lamp-shriveled taquitos). This expectation of quality, combined with the bounty of excellent ingredients in the country, means that there is lower tolerance for throwaway food culture. People care about what they eat not because that is the cool thing to do now, but because that is just the way things are. I found that everyone I spoke with was incredibly conversant in food, with a strong understanding of regionalism and history, even though they wouldn’t self-identify as food obsessives (much less “foodies”).
But I know you’re less concerned with my ramblings, and more interested in where to actually eat. Navigating the options can be overwhelming, so it’s important to have some sort of game plan when you visit. These 10 spots were all recommended by Tokyo residents, and while you can see that I became a little bit ramen-obsessed, they offer a solid cross-section of dining options in the city, particularly the popular Harajuku/Shibuya/Omotesando area.
Photos and words by Chris Schonberger (@cschonberger)