What are my solo dining options in Tokyo?
April 18, 2010 3:14 AM   Subscribe

Alone in Tokyo for the next four days - what are my dining options? This is definitely a volcano related query...

I'm eating alone in Tokyo for the next four days. I would prefer to stick to Japanese food, but I don't read any of it, so my vocabulary is restricted to ordering from pictures, extending to common foods found overseas.

I'm staying in the Roppongi area, but would be keen on travelling to different areas for food.

I'm interested about solo dining dinner options. Breakfast / lunch, I can find off the street.

I'm thinking sushi/sashimi bars? What would be good one for me? Considering I'm in Tokyo for the first time, I'd prefer quality over price.

As such, just good ambiance and limited awkwardness would be great.
posted by aherdofturtles to Travel & Transportation around Tokyo, Japan (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Don't feel awkward it is quite normal for people to eat alone in Japan. It's also quite normal to just point at pictures in a menu. If you go to an izakaya and everything will have a picture, and you can just point to what you want. In a kaiten sushi bar, you can just pick off plates from the the conveyor belt - no language skills neccessary.

I wouldn't restrict myself to restaurants at night - one of the best things about Japan is that every restaurant has a lunch menu for a bargain price - even a quality place will have a set menu for lunch at Y1000-Y2000. Take advantage of this.

As for specific restaurants, there are 60,000 restaurants in Tokyo so it's quite hard to recommend one in particular. Here are some listings. I would say that, unlike the West, most of the food in most restaurants is really good so if you walk past something you think looks good, just be brave and give it a shot.
posted by dydecker at 4:04 AM on April 18, 2010

Most of the ultra-high quality dining options (Michelin starred and all that) require reservations months in advance, so they aren't really options per se.

Steak House Saitou is a steak joint attached to a butchery. It isn't located in central Tokyo, but is easily accessible via a short jaunt on the subway. It has excellent steak, and you should have it as rare as your personal preferences permit.

Menya Kissou has been voted #1 ramen shop in Japan on ramendb and tabelog (food review sites run by the Japanese for the Japanese). Like Steak House Saitou, it's located on the outskirts of central Tokyo. It is also only open for lunch (I know you said dinner, but just well, being extraneous).

Sushi Zanmai is a sushi chain with good, affordable sushi and branches all over Tokyo. Their menu has pictures and English as well. I strongly recommend that you check them out. There are definitely better sushi joints out there, such as Sushi Dai in Tsukiji Fish Market, but Zanmai opens for dinner and is very decent too.

Ippudo is another solid ramen place with branches all over Tokyo that you should check out.

Check out Chowhound for more recommendations for Tokyo.
posted by nihraguk at 6:13 AM on April 18, 2010

Best answer: The number of restaurants in Tokyo is so mind-bogglingly large that ten people could recommend ten different restaurants without any overlap. That said, these links can help you narrow the field:

Sunnypages.jp restaurant reviews (organised by region and style)
Tokyo Food Page (seconding dydecker's recommendation)
eGullet's Japan dining category

Alternatives are asking your hotel reception staff, and randomly walking into some place interesting (the odds really are quite good compared with other countries). Don't be put off by a recommendation if the restaurant happens to be part of a chain. This is not uncommon in Tokyo and unlike chains in the West it isn't a sign of poorer quality food or service.

I was alone in Tokyo for several days in February and set out to sample a range of Japanese specialties done right, so I could go home knowing "so that's what that dish is meant to taste like". This was at short notice and with only limited Japanese, which unfortunately counted out some of the fanciest places. I never once felt or was made to feel uncomfortable dining on my own. If anything, I preferred being seated at the counter where I could watch as the food was prepared. Here's what I can remember:

Tsunahachi Rin (Shinjuku): The up-market branch of one of Tokyo's most successful Tempura chains. Great atmosphere, excellent, friendly service, and very good food. I ordered a tasting menu which had a great variety and some interesting non-tempura touches. Excellent dessert. I'd recommend making a reservation if you can, but early/mid week it shouldn't be much of a wait to walk in.

Torafugu Tei: Fugu (pufferfish). Fugu was something I wanted to try, but I was a little disappointed to find that as fish go it's not all that tasty (the melt-in-your-mouth skin being an exception). I don't think that was the fault of this restaurant though. Not sure which one I went to -- it was near the JR Okachimachi station.

Kiji (Tokyo): Delicious okonomiyaki, considered to be the best in Tokyo. That opinion is shared by many, so be prepared for a long wait to get in. I ordered a ridiculous amount of food because I wanted to try a variety, and I can recommend sujiyaki and the regular okonomiyaki with prawns and pork. The yakisoba didn't blow me away.

I'd recommend also trying yakitori (went to a great place in Okachimachi; can't remember the name), and experiencing an izakaya.

Now I know you've got breakfast and lunch sorted, but some of the best food to be had in Tokyo is served before the sun goes down.

On the recommendations of many (including as I later found out, the Guardian newspaper, who declared it the best place to eat sushi anywhere int he world) I went to Daiwa Sushi at the Tsukiji fish markets. I ate a lot of sushi in Japan and Daiwa was definitely the best. The line is long, but being just one person you should get in in a reasonable time. As for ramen, Ramen Jiro has a massive cult following so I had to try it. Unlike other ramen places, this one opens at 11 and closes when they run out of soup -- usually before dinner service. It's a unique style of ramen based on a novel concept -- they basically take all of the components of great ramen -- a rich stock, chewy noodles, garlic, pork -- and turn it up to 11 thousand. After I left the restaurant I felt satisfied, but also kind of disgusting. I never skip meals but that night I didn't eat dinner.

If you do intend to go to specific places based on recommendations, I recommend researching how to get there. It can be impossible to find places in Tokyo and you can't always just ask someone. Pre-stalking the place on Google Street View helped, as did writing down the restaurant name's kanji and a couple of times copying a photo of the storefront to my phone. Sounds ridiculous but the city is a massive haystack.

I think I can stop writing now.
posted by teem at 6:18 AM on April 18, 2010

I spent 5 days eating alone in Tokyo in March this year, and would like to second dydecker's comment above. I don't speak Japanese either, and didn't encounter any awkwardness.

I'm not sure whether you're restricting yourself to sushi/sashimi out of preference or in an attempt to avoid awkwardness, but if it is the latter, don't. Ramen and soba places are very accomodating and non-awkward for the single traveller as well. In fact, most restaurants in Japan generally are.
posted by nihraguk at 6:19 AM on April 18, 2010

When I went to Tokyo with my family a couple years ago, none of us spoke any Japanese, couldn't read it, often went into restaurants we knew nothing about and clearly weren't attempting to draw tourists, and we didn't have any problems. Everyone was very nice and happy to bring us whatever we pointed to off the menu, or in some cases pointed to what someone else was eating if we didn't know what it was. We were in Takadanobaba, only spent one evening in Roppongi. A lot of places have models of a bunch of the dishes on display in their windows, so you know what you're getting.

The only bad meal we had in Japan was at Yoshinoya, sort of a McDonald's-quality place with Japanese food. Everything else was great, not a single iffy piece of sushi, even at a mall at a cheapo place. Conveyor belt sushi is fun, too. But don't discount other kinds of food, like noodles, cooked fish (Japanese breakfasts can have a lot of cooked fish), yakitori, etc. I don't think most places would be awkward to eat at alone, but you can probably tell from just looking in if you'd feel uncomfortable as a solo diner.
posted by wondermouse at 9:56 AM on April 18, 2010

What others said about it being totally normal to eat alone in Japan! I don't know your neighborhood, and there are so many great places to go, but I'll outline some stuff and how it is written in Japanese. You can then take some words while you wander, point and ask someone around you, or ask at the hotel.

Best meals to eat alone:
- Ramen (ラーメン or らーめん): noodle soup goodness often served with pork slices, egg, green onion, ginger, and other stuff. My favorite is tan-tanmen, which has a sesame based soup. Do not confuse this with the crap you ate in college. That was shit. This is THE shit.
- Yep, sushi (すし 寿司), specifically the 100¥ type places with the revolving counters. Fun! I went to a great one above Asakusa called tsukiji zushi, it had the computerized menus for ordering from your table.

Other great foods not to miss:
- okonomiyaki (おこのみやき お好み焼き), cabbage and veggie based with eggs and meat, cooked hot on your table and covered with nori, fish flakes, kewpie mayo, and a sweet brown sauce. Everywhere in Japan, nowhere outside.
- Okinawan food (沖縄料理)! If you want a slightly different flavor, check out the food native to the southern islands. It is very China/Taiwan influenced, with a definite tropical flair. I recommend to you the so-ki soba, anything made with sweet potatoes, the sea grapes (umi-budou), and the champuru, a kind of fried-rice made with bitter cucumbers and spam (trust me, it's good).
- soba (そば), lovely brown buckwheat noodles, served cold or hot in a soup. If you prefer them hot, try sansaisoba, made with mountain vegetables.

I am so jealous. You should consider having 2 dinners each night just to appreciate this country. "Japanese" food in Europe is just, not, Japanese.
posted by whatzit at 10:56 AM on April 18, 2010

Oh yeah and wondermouse is right: yakitori (焼き鳥 やきとり) is awesome!

wondermouse is also right about staying far the hell away from yoshinoya (orange sign) and matsuya (松屋 yellow sign with logo like a painters palette), another of its ilk. Ptooey!
posted by whatzit at 10:58 AM on April 18, 2010

I used the Tokyo Restaurant Reference to find restaurants with English menus a few years ago - not sure how up to date the website is so you might want to double check some of those places are open before you show up. Bento.com is another good restaurant reference in English although they don't always indicate when English menus are available.

Coco Ichi is a Japanese curry chain with outlets everywhere, and they have English menus. Japanese curry is awesome, don't miss it.

Andy's Shin Hinomoto is an izakaya run by an English dude with English menus that seems to be popular with tourists and locals - try to make a reservation beforehand because it can get busy. (I linked to my photo of the front because the signage isn't in English so I had trouble finding the place).

Izakaya Tengu is an izakaya chain with English menus.

Indian restaurants are another good option - even if you can't order in Japanese you probably know the Indian names of popular dishes. And Indian food in Japan is usually pretty great.
posted by Gortuk at 12:59 PM on April 18, 2010

Also - I ate a lot kaiten-sushi in Japan for the convenience factor, plus sushi is awesome and almost always great quality even at the 100Yen places. The abovementioned Sushi Zanmai is fantastic - there are about 8 locations within a few blocks of Tsukiji, at least one of which is a kaiten spot. This looks like a map to the place. My last night in Tokyo I sat there eating multiple $4 plates of aburi-toro (tuna belly burned with a blowtorch) - pure sushi heaven.
posted by Gortuk at 1:28 PM on April 18, 2010

I feel obliged to speak up for Yoshinoya. It's like a pizza or burger chain in the Western context: if time and money are no concern, you wouldn't go there instead of a real restaurant, or even a real pizza/burger (or gyudon) place, but when you're drunk and hungry and running out of cash at 2 am on the way home, it is ambrosia.

Matsuya, though, Matsuya is just nasty.
posted by No-sword at 4:04 PM on April 18, 2010

For gyūdon, I recommend Sukiya due to their larger menu and better taste (IMO). But really, Yoshinoya and Matsuya are not as bad as other comments have made them sound.

Dinner for one at a nice restaurant in Tokyo might be a bit lonely, but tonkatsu is one of the few foods that you can eat in nice surroundings alone without feeling awkward. I've heard good things about Butagumi in Nishi-Azabu (just west of Roppongi). FWIW, the two most famous places in Tokyo are Tonki in Meguro and Maisen in Omotesando, but they have less atmosphere.
posted by armage at 5:31 PM on April 18, 2010

If you are an adventurous eater, and really don't mind spending a bit of money (¥5000+!), consider trying some traditional Japanese food (kaiseki ryōri)-- I don't think you'll be able to find food quite like this anywhere but in Japan.

In that vein, I'd recommend a restaurant called Tankuma Kitamise. I've personally only been to their Ikebukuro restaurant, which is currently closed for renovations, but they also have a store in Tokyo Station. Since it's inside a department store, I don't think it would be too awkward, though I imagine you'd have to order based on price or something, as the menu will undoubtedly be inscrutable.

For a far less expensive option (¥700) for trying an arrangement of Japanese food you find less commonly overseas, I recommend the lunch set at Ninjinya (yes, I know you said no lunch, but they unfortunately don't have this set for dinner). Eating lunch here is sort of like eating at someone's house-- homecooked deliciousness. The Takadanobaba location is here. On the menu, you want the にんじんや御膳.

But, yeah, I think you are unlikely to be disappointed no matter where you go.

(If any of the above happen to strike your fancy, let me know and I'll put together some more specific directions.)
posted by caaaaaam at 3:52 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: All the above answers are great. Thank you so much guys. I've been nailing these one by one. Top picks:

Tsukiji sushi - pretty much anything around the fish market.

Tsunahachi Rin (Shinjuku): - fantastic place. 7F of the Lumine building above Shinjuku station. Look for the word "Rin" and a tempura counter...

Just a sub question though - anyone know what the heck is up with people lining up in Harajuku for the Hawaiian "Eggs n Things"? There was an hour wait at 11am on Tuesday morning...all looking like "ladies who lunch"....
posted by aherdofturtles at 11:21 PM on April 19, 2010

Just a sub question though - anyone know what the heck is up with people lining up in Harajuku for the Hawaiian "Eggs n Things"? There was an hour wait at 11am on Tuesday morning...all looking like "ladies who lunch"....

Apparently it just opened in March, so it's still relatively new. Add to that its Hawaiian roots (its other branch has been in Honolulu since 1974), its location, and some word-of-mouth and you've got a recipe for long lines. Plus it seems to be one of the few places in Tokyo that do all-day breakfast.
posted by armage at 5:17 PM on April 20, 2010

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