One of the benefits of frequently traveling to Southeast Asia for work is flying through some of the region's major hubs and taking a day or two to enjoy the local cuisine. But while I've spent countless hours exploring hawker centers in Singapore, dim sum in Hong Kong, and Korean barbecue in Seoul, no city draws me back quite so powerfully as Tokyo. Japan's sprawling megalopolis has been in the culinary spotlight more than a few times, with the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Ono Jiro, and David Chang highlighting the varied—and at times eccentric—aspects of the city's dining culture. But the defining virtue of Japanese cuisine is a cultural one: the meticulous, centuries-long dedication to craft and precision.
Nearly all of my most memorable Tokyo dining experiences have taken place in tiny establishments, where a single artisan prepares a specialty that he or she has been rigorously perfecting for decades. Yes, there are crazy robot burlesque shows and ninja-themed izakayas, but my best bites have come from quiet, almost hushed spaces, where dining is an intimate and personal affair. In side streets and cramped office buildings, you can find unforgettable meals in almost every corner of the city, from Asakusa to Shinjuku (and it doesn't hurt that they're all easily accessible via the world's best train system). Here are nine spots no visitor should miss.
For Tsukemen: Fu-unji, in Shibuya
We've featured Fu-unji in the past, but it deserves a repeat mention. Like many popular ramen shops in Tokyo, it occupies a crowded little space and often draws long lines. But what sets the Shibuya shop apart from many of its brethren is the quality of its tsukemen—the rich, chicken-based broth, though lighter than a pork version, still boasts a bold, umami-laden punch.
A heaping portion of smoked fish powder lends remarkable complexity and heft to the soup, for a concentrated creamy-smoky dipping broth that clings evenly to each noodle. And because this is tsukemen, those noodles are chewier and thicker than what you'll find in typical ramen, which means they're substantial enough to stand up to the potent soup. Fu-unji is the kind of place where I'm content to wait in even the longest lines, watching the cooks churn out flawless bowls of broth and platters of noodles as the sounds of slurping spill out into the street.
For Tori-Paitan Ramen: Kagari, in Ginza
You'll find Kagari in the glitzy, hyper-stylish neighborhood of Ginza, tucked in a back alley beneath a glowing sign reading "SOBA." But don't be misled: you won't encounter any soba on the menu. Instead, the tiny shop features tori-paitan ramen, a creamy, opaque chicken broth (as opposed to a clear chintan broth) with an almost gravy-like richness. Less fatty and sticky than pork-based tonkotsu broth, Kagari's tori-paitan ramen is silky and surprisingly buttery. Topped with a selection of steamed seasonal vegetables—in this case, baby corn, asparagus, and cherry tomatoes—it straddles the line between hearty and buoyant, a perfect reprieve for those facing tonkotsu overload.
For Soba: Namiki Yabusoba, in Asakusa
Though ramen culture may have taken Tokyo by storm in recent decades, the craft of soba has been around far longer. Take Namiki Yabusoba—a shop founded in 1913, just steps from the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, where thin, springy soba noodles have been hand-crafted from freshly harvested buckwheat for generations. Try the subtly earthy-sweet noodles cold with a bowl of soba tsuyu, a dashi-based dipping sauce finished with soy and mirin. Namiki's tsuyu leans heavily on the soy, resulting in an uncommonly pronounced flavor that lends extra nuance to the buckwheat. It's a refreshing, simple combination that's obviously withstood the test of time: People have been eating this very same meal, in the same location, for 112 years. Once the noodles are gone, pour some of the provided warm soba water into the remaining tsuyu to drink—a customary (and delicious) end to a historic meal.
For Tendon: Masaru, in Asakusa
Unwavering dedication to craft has allowed Masaru to excel at its namesake tendon (tempura over rice) for over 50 years. Though it's a bit more expensive than a typical tendon shop, the premium in price translates to quality. Daily offerings are dictated entirely by the quality of the fresh-caught fish that the chef purchases from the Tsukiji Market each morning. In fact, while Masaru's hours are technically 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., it's not uncommon for the shop to remain closed if that morning's catch isn't up to the chef's standards.
When it is open, Masaru's signature edomae tendon is a must-order. Tempura prawn, freshwater eel, and fish are served over a bowl of rice with a side of miso soup. Each piece of seafood is battered and fried in sesame oil for a delicate golden crust (no sugar or MSG in sight) and a tender, impeccably cooked interior. The rice is lightly dampened with soy sauce; the soup consistently smoky, rich, and nutty. Taken together and savored, the flavors of the dish turn what might otherwise be a quick and thoughtless meal at one of Tokyo's countless tendon shops into a meditation on minimalism and craft.
For Omakase Sushi: Sushi Ochiai, in Ginza
Situated in a nondescript office building in a space with only about 10 seats, Sushi Ochiai is representative of the upper echelon of sushi bars: small, minimally adorned, with all focus directed on the master chef. To be seated at one of these counters is tantamount to having an orchestra-row theater ticket. Layering thinly sliced sardines and ginger on a bed of nori; deftly slicing octopus to create a ridged texture; molding perfectly oblong mounds of rice on which to rest nigiri—each gesture is part of a carefully choreographed exercise.
Perhaps most admirable is how the chef is able to single-handedly perform this culinary ballet while also pacing multi-course meals for several parties at once, somehow knowing exactly when to serve the next course, to pour more sake, and to start prepping a baked uni. From an amuse-bouche of pickled seaweed soup to bright, fresh slivers of sashimi to bites of briny, creamy uni, Sushi Ochiai guarantees a phenomenal kaleidoscope of flavors.
For Tonkatsu: Sugita, in Asakusa
Tonkatsu (breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet) is a working-class dish, and it's been a Japanese comfort-food staple for centuries. In fact, trying to perfect this kind of homey dish seems almost antithetical to its simple nature—until you try the carefully honed rendition at Sugita, that is. For over 40 years, the restaurant has made a science of frying each individual piece of pork. The process of trimming tendons and fat, breading the cutlet, and frying it might sound straightforward, but Sugita's chef makes it look like a performance unto itself. Each cutlet is hand-selected and quickly dredged in egg, flour, and breadcrumbs, then flash-fried at 335°F and finished in a vat of 265°F oil.
After each frying, the chef expertly swirls the oil, straining out any remaining breadcrumbs to prevent burning and purify the oil for the next batch. All of this happens deftly, in quick succession and with deliberate, practiced movements. The result is light, savory tonkatsu with a delicate, uniformly crisp exterior and a lean yet juicy interior. And at Sugita, even the sides are perfectly executed: The cutlets come with a serving of rich tonjiru (miso pork broth), balanced with cool, crunchy cabbage, slicked pickles, and rice.
For Absinthe, Chartreuse, and Cocktails: Bar Ben Fiddich, in Shinjuku
Tokyo is known for having some of the best cocktail bars in the world. The heady heights of Ginza's Star Bar and Bar High Five may have cocktail nerds the world over effusing about the proper execution of the hard shake, but Tokyo's great cocktail spots aren't confined to Ginza. For that matter, they're not even confined to cocktails. Bar Ben Fiddich in Shinjuku looks just like one of the city's many stellar cocktail bars—a dimly lit space on a high floor of an office building, bartender replete with immaculate white smoking jacket—but it distinguishes itself in a very special way: Hiroyasu Kayama is considered an absinthe specialist, and rightly so.
In addition to his vast collection of bottles (some approaching 100 years old), Kayama stocks the bar with homemade absinthe and chartreuse—no small feat. He serves the bitter liqueur from a traditional absinthe fountain, the origins of which date back to the late 1800s. It's little more than a glass globe of cold water on a narrow metal stand, releasing a steady drip that allows for precise dilution of each drink.
But Kayama is far from just an obsessive absinthe fan; he's also a master bartender. When I asked for a bitter cocktail, in keeping with the theme of his bar, he prepared what he called an amaro botanico: Instead of using an actual amaro, he hand-selected a variety of herbs and spices and ground them with a mortar and pestle to achieve the bitter, earthy profile of an amaro cocktail.
For Coffee: Omotesando Koffee, in Shibuya
Omotesando Koffee puts an intriguing spin on the concept of the pop-up. Installed within a 60-year old machiya (traditional wooden house), the coffee bar is a minimalist cube hidden from plain view in the back alleys of Omotesando. The stark interior contrasts sharply with a quaint and overgrown courtyard furnished with aging wooden benches. Once you manage to find it, you'll be treated to some of the best coffee in Tokyo.
Omotesando Koffee blends beans from Brazil, Ethiopia, El Salvador, and Indonesia, all of which are roasted in Kyoto, resulting in a cup that's crisp and sweet with a mellow, floral finish. You might be distracted by the novelty of the environment, but when you're seated in the serene, lush courtyard with coffee in hand, all that's left is great coffee and a whole lot of zen.
For Vintage Whiskey: Campbelltoun Loch, in Chiyoda
Unlike the other recommendations on this list, Campbelltoun Loch doesn't offer an original product. Rather, it's an exceptionally small bar—just eight seats, and barely any room to move about—that's practically littered with bottles. Take a closer look and you'll discover a jaw-dropping selection of vintage whiskeys at dangerously affordable prices.
Case in point: I ordered an independent bottling of a 27-year-old Port Ellen (an iconic, now-defunct Islay Scotch distillery) for less than $20, which is half or even a third of what I'd expect to pay for a full dram elsewhere. And—since this is Japan, after all—I also had a 15-year-old Karuizawa for the same amount. Japanese whiskey aficionados will recognize the name Karuizawa as the holy grail of Nippon whiskey (right up there with the dwindling stock of Hanyu vintages). Being able to sample single-casks from these famous shuttered distilleries without making a major dent in your wallet is an opportunity that whiskey lovers will find impossible to pass up. The reason for those low prices? Campbelltoun Loch's owner and sole bartender, Nakamura Nobuyuki, simply loves the spirit and wants to share his passion with other enthusiasts.