So what is an “izakaya” and how do you know where to find one? It is primarily a drinking establishment with mostly Japanese alcohol and it serves light food. Once catering strictly to businessmen, it has become popular among women and students as well. Similar to the American bar, appetizers and light foods are served along with various beers, wines and of course, sake.
How do you know where to find an izakaya? They are advertised with red lanterns with the word “izakaya”,”yakitori”, and so on. Some izakaya chains do not have the red lanterns but they have “izakaya”(=居酒屋) on their signs. They are fairly easy to locate and always fun to visit.
There are two types of izakaya: the old and the modern. The old one is set up more like an American diner, with a counter and chairs or stools. They often they have only sake and beer, although there are some that have alcohol from western countries. (Please note that the older izakaya is still much cleaner than the typical American diner!) The modern izakaya looks like a nicer restaurant with proper sit down tables and chairs. Some even offer the low tables and tatami mats upon which to sit.
So what foods can you order at the izakaya? It all depends on your mood and the type of izakaya you visit. When visiting an izakaya, you will always be served otooshi, which is a small dish of food that varies by establishment. The otooshi is served without ordering, much how most restaurants in the U.S. serve you bread without having to order separately.
The Yakitori-ya is an izakaya where they specialize in yakitori, or skewers. Think of it like a kebab and the perfect food to go with a beer.
The oden-ya serves mainly oden and is similar to a street stall with seating. An equivalent might be the Mexican street taco stand and just as appetizing!
There are of course many other types of izakaya. There are chains that offer a more extensive menu and are better for larger parties. The robatayaki offers grilled seafood and vegetables, which are grilled in front of the customer on an open hearth. I recommend this for vegetarians and because you can choose the ingredients (point and nod) you want grilled.
The izakaya offers traditional Japanese foods, such as udon, yakitori, sushi, sashimi, etc. For those who are not very adventurous and want to stick to more familiar American food, there is always pizza and french fries. But be warned, pizza in Japan is not like pizza in the U.S.!
The typical price range for the izakaya varies. A course menu ranges anywhere from 1800 to 4300 yen. The course may include sashimi, ceasar salad, three fried foods, pork, shrimp, potatoes, noodles, dessert, etc. A typical alcoholic drink costs between 250 yen to 400 yen. Though this seems expensive, for the person on a budget, there is the two hour all you can eat and all you can drink special. The all you can drink two hour special costs between 1000 and 1500 yen, while the all you can eat two hour special ranges from 2500 to 5000 yen. To truly get your money’s worth, II suggest the two hour specials.
The atmosphere at the izakaya is very casual and friendly. There’s no need to dress up though many people will be dressed in business attire after having left from work. Be prepared for politeness and lots of good food and alcohol!
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