Nightlife in Tokyo is complicated. Most kitchens close at 11 p.m, and you're welcome to stay and drink after that. The mood after 11 is buzzing: old-school jazz or hip-hop hums along, ice tumbles in metal cocktail shakers, smoke perfumed with grilled chicken and vegetables wafts by, and the homey smells of soy, mirin, garlic, onions, and peppers cloud the air. Whether it's noodles, chicken, beef, pork, fish, or vegetables, late-night food in Tokyo is plentiful and usually crazy delicious. Until 12:45 a.m., that is.
And then? The subway grinds to a halt. Doesn't matter where on the line you are. A red sign flashes uniformed men usher passengers out at the nearest stop, where taxis line up to charge exorbitant prices to get you home. So you have a choice: clean out your life savings on a cab, or stay out all night. The subways start again at 5 a.m.
You're much better off eating between 9 and midnight in Tokyo, pacing yourself slowly enough to hit a few spots in one boozy, caloric swoop.
My favorite food in Tokyo is yakitori, and fortunately, you can find it in the wee hours. What makes the grilled chicken in here so much better than what you find Stateside? In Japan, the chicken a single breed (often from Akita), with a firm, gamy taste. It's grilled over coal and enhanced by a sake-mirin-sugar-soy sauce. Yakitori joints hawk all sort of chicken parts, from butt to lungs, and the "meatball" called tsukune, which is how a yakitori place is judged, often contains minced cartilage.
I have several favorite yakitori restaurants in Tokyo. They all serve the same chicken parts, and what differentiates them are the vibe, the clientele, and the way each sauce is made. Birdland, which is literally next door to Jiro, the sushi spot made famous in that movie, has the coolest atmosphere in the city. No wonder as it's in Ginza, the poshest district of Tokyo. Here you'll find a well heeled crowd, great jazz from the 1950s and 1960s, and a first-rate sake list.
Ebisu Imaiya, in Ebisu, is less chic, but captures the neighborhood's essence: dates enjoy a quiet, romantic setting in booths rather than at a counter — it feels more intimate than most yakitori places. Akita chickens are used here and unlike some yakitori places, you can have raw egg served with your tsukune. My new favorite is Tori-Yoshi, located in Meguro-Ku. It has a lively, fancy-pants crowd, mostly locals and some foreigners, all enjoying excellent bird. The last time I was there, two men on the stools next to me had brought in a bottle of Gevry Chambertin wine to enjoy with their grilled chicken. It's counter style, like many places, and the cooks are dramatic.
If you're seeking variety, go under the JR (Japan Rail) train bridges in Marunouchi and Ginza, where you'll find dozens of tiny hole-in-the-wall food stalls. This, too, is mostly a matter of being hungry. The aromas are wonderful, and what's served — like noodles and grilled meants — is terrifically salty and fatty. There isn't a showcase stall here, but they'll all keep you chugging along through the night.
Speaking of high fat and lots of salt, there's always ramen. Ramen has become popular Stateside, but in Japan it's regarded by many over the age of thirty as stuff for cash-strapped students on a bender or coming off one. Better than ramen is tsukemen, or dipping noodles, which are just as salty and unhealthy than their better-known counterpart.
A big part of the experience of eating tsukemen is the process of getting into the restaurant where it's served. My current favorite is Mentoku Tsujita, which has five locations, with the original in Chiyoda-ku. You line up outside, get to a vending machine, put coins in, push a button, and get a ticket. If it's raining, someone will come out and hand you an umbrella. While you're waiting, there's a big urn of hot green tea; feel free to pour yourself a cup.
Once inside, hand your ticket over and take a seat. Moments later, the tsukemen arrives with a small bowl of thick gravy. Dip the noodles into the pork and chicken-enhanced gravy, and the flavor that follows is immediately satisfying. The chickens are free-range Akita, the broth is made with four different types of konbu (kelp), and the secret spice mix combo is said go back thirteen generations. As the gravy is used up, a cook shows up with the hot water that was used to cook the noodles and adds it to the bowl. Now it's soup!
But say you missed that last train, can't afford a taxi, and you decide to make a night of it, staying out all night and dragging yourself into the office the next day. Between 12:45 and 5, there are far fewer choices for eating, but there are a few options: namely takoyaki, Yoshinoya, and Nombei.
Takoyaki are kind of like Japanese arancini: little flour balls mixed with minced octopus and fried to a crisp, sold at stands all over the city. Yoshinoya are 24-hour beef joints. These places, identifiable by their bright black and orange English signage, sell American beef in bowls. Their motto? "Tasty, low-priced, and quick," and they mean it.
Finally, head over to Nombei, in Shibuya, a dark cluster of Blade Runner-like food shops, many with as few as three seats, where you can sit in the dim light and eat snacks such as fried chicken wings, boiled edamame, and roasted peanuts while sipping beer and waiting for the subways to start. Nombei means "drunk people," and while you needn't be inebriated to appreciate the experience, it is what it is. Embrace it.
About the Author: Scott Haas is the author of Back of the House, a book about the psychology of being a chef and working in restaurants (Berkley/Penguin). His work appears in a variety of publications, including Wine Enthusiast, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, Sewasdee, and Gastronomica. He has a doctorate in clinical psychology and maintains an active consultative practice emphasizing diagnostic work in psychiatric hospitals and urban communities of color. He is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but can be found in Japan as often as possible.