10 Tokyo dishes you need to try
Sushi, soba, tonkatsu, even (surprise) pizza—these are the foods you don't want to miss out on.
I’m a chef, baker, and sommelier who was born in Tokyo. I wrote the book on Japanese food—literally. My book, Food Sake Tokyo, is a food lover’s guide to the best cuisine in the Japanese capital. And what I can tell you with full authority is that it’s hard to get a bad meal in Tokyo—especially if you go to one of the legendary restaurants that specialize in a single dish, and a single dish alone.
At these restaurants, the chefs work tirelessly to perfect yakitori grilled chicken skewers, tempura, soba noodles, the list goes on. And they incorporate the seasons: slightly bitter mountain vegetables in tempura in spring or fatty yellowtail at sushi counters in winter.
Follow my guide to 10 quintessential dishes in Tokyo—plus where to eat them. Not only will you have a great meal, you’ll get a window into Japan’s rich food culture.
In Tokyo, sushi comes at many price points—from easygoing conveyor belt spots to high-end counter dining where you’ll pay hundreds of dollars to watch a master in action (if you can even get a reservation, that is).
Where to get it: Want an excellent experience that combines value and performance? My go-to is Manten Sushi in Marunouchi (which also has branches in Nihonbashi and Hibiya). I recommend dining at Manten’s counter because it’s such a friendly atmosphere at a fair price—especially considering the quality of the sushi. Say “omakase” and leave it to the chef, who will start you out with a few small appetizers followed by a parade of seasonal sushi, from tuna to uni. And good news for visitors from overseas: Manten accepts reservations online through its website.
Tip: All of Manten’s branches are open on Sundays, which is unusual for a sushi restaurant.
Travelers say: “Dont bother coming here if you just want sushi train food or if you have kids, this is something else of an experience tasting a variety of seafoods all prepared in front of you by experts in the business who explained every dish we had.”—@13Astroboy
Yakitori literally means “grilled chicken”—and in this special dish, parts of the bird are cut into bite-size pieces, skewered, and cooked over an electric heat source.
Where to get it: My favorite place for yakitori is Abe-chan, a small restaurant in Azabu-Juban, an historic neighborhood that was once a residential area for samurai and aristocrats. At the front of the shop is a large vessel filled with a sweet soy sauce called tare. The same pot has been used for decades, so the outside is covered with a thick layer of sauce that has dried over the years. The grill master dips the skewers into the tare sauce before serving it. Order a few different cuts like liver, thigh, heart, or wings. On the table is shichimi seven spice, a chili-based condiment to add a kick to the grilled chicken skewers.The perfect pairing? A cold beer.
Tip: There is a second floor with more seats and a sister location around the corner, so don’t walk away if the restaurant looks full.
At its core, ramen is a bowl of wheat noodles in broth—and the concept originally came from China, then morphed into what it is today. Now, there are so many tempting bowls of ramen all over Tokyo with all different kinds of bases and toppings. I am addicted to tori paitan, a creamy ramen made with chicken.
Where to get it: Ginza Kagari is a hidden gem on a quiet pedestrian back street in the glitzy Ginza district. Kagari’s thin noodles are served in a creamy rich broth that’s garnished with seasonal vegetables. The best way to enjoy a hot bowl of noodles is to slurp. You’ll recognize the restaurant by the sign above the door that says “soba” (in English), but don’t worry, you’re not getting buckwheat noodles. “Chuuka soba” is another way to say ramen. Kagari is tiny, accommodating only about 15 people, so arrive early and be prepared to wait.
Tip: Kagari is a cashless shop so don’t forget your credit card (you can also charge the meal to your prepaid Suica train card).
Travelers say: “Excellent chicken-stock ramen that is well worth queuing for. It’s located in a tiny alley-way, so just look for a line of people waiting their turn.”—@quicktake100
Tendon is a uniquely Japanese dish whose name comes from the words tempura (a.k.a. “ten”) and donburi (a.k.a. “don”). In other words, a bowl of rice topped with tempura.
Where to get it: When I’m in the mood for tendon I head to Ginza Tendon Ramen Hageten, which has a C-shaped counter that feels like it’s straight out of the Netflix series, Midnight Diner. Here, you pay for your order with cash at the vending machine. There are photos of the set meals with the price on the buttons. Give the ticket to the staff when you sit down. My must-have order is the shrimp and vegetables, dipped in batter, deep-fried, and drizzled with a sweet soy sauce.
Tip: This is the rare tempura shop that also serves ramen, so you can indulge in two favorite dishes at one meal.
5. Soba buckwheat noodles
Soba is a chilled noodle served on a bamboo mat, usually served with a soy dipping sauce (though there's sometimes a creamy goma sesame dipping sauce, which everyone loves). Be sure to slurp loudly—that is the traditional way to eat noodles in Japan.
Where to get it: In the Chiyoda district not far from Meiji University, Kanda Matsuya has been serving soba buckwheat noodles since 1884. Housed in an historic building (one of the few that survived the WWII bombings) with a simple rustic interior, it feels like stepping back in time. It’s exceedingly popular, so expect long lines—especially at lunch time. Tempura is a popular side dish with soba: Get the shrimp and vegetables.
Tip: Ask what the seasonal soba is for the day. Kanda Matsuya specializes in unique flavors like yuzu citrus.
Travelers say: “A must do if you want to experience soba in an authentic atmosphere. Everything was so good and not too expensive. The waitress are so nice and ready to tell you how to proceed with the different ingredients. You eat among the locals. Our best experience in Tokyo!”—@Julietteparies
You wouldn’t expect this in Japan, but Tokyo has surprisingly amazing pizzerias, and the flavors usually go behind the classic margherita. Think teriyaki pizza.
Where to get it: My pick is Ebisu Marumo, which was recently voted the number 10 pizzeria in the world by The Best Chef Awards. The dough at Marumo is made with a large amount of water so the crust is both crispy and chewy. The menu has an extensive selection of toppings. I recommend the umami version with shaved kombu kelp and smoky bonito flakes. If you don’t want to experiment, you could just order the margherita, which is outstanding. Chef Motokura also takes advantage of the heat from the wood-burning pizza oven by roasting vegetables for appetizers.
Tip: It’s easy to book seats at Marumo through its website.
7. Sukiyaki and shabu shabu
Two of the most famous wagyu beef hot pot dishes are sukiyaki and shabu shabu. You usually do your own cooking over a small stove on your table. With sukiyaki, marbled beef is sliced thin and marinated in a sweet soy sauce broth with tofu, leeks, mushrooms, fu (a delicate sponge-like wheat gluten), and shirataki noodles. A raw egg is served with the meal. The egg is cracked into a bowl and mixed up with chopsticks; you then dip your cooked meat into the egg.
Shabu shabu is a hot pot where even thinner slices of marbled wagyu beef and vegetables are cooked in a hot broth and then dipped into sauces like a creamy sesame or a tart ponzu soy mixture.
Where to get it: Since 1895, Imahan has been the place in Tokyo for sukiyaki and shabu shabu. Imahan’s original shop is in Ningyocho, but there are a few other branches in the city, including my pick—the 14th floor of Shinjuku Takashimaya department store.
At Imahan, the staff will help you get started; be sure to take advantage of this service. After the dish begins to cook and you understand how to use the dipping sauces, you can take over.
Tip: Come at lunchtime—it’s cheaper.
Travelers say: “Had a great course of Sukiyaki. I learned more about the process and the history of the restaurant. I had a great teacher and cook to make this a very memorable experience. Great beef and experience!”—@I5992QIkevino
The ultimate comfort food in Japan is called onigiri, and these are rice balls stuffed with a variety of savory fillings and wrapped in nori seaweed.
Where to get it: Manma is run by a chef who worked at Bongo, an historic onigiri shop that has been making rice balls for over 50 years. The onigiri at Manma are about twice the size of what you’ll find anywhere else. This spot has a casual vibe with seats lined up along a counter and all the fillings on display. Part of the fun of dining at Manma is choosing from the mix of traditional and modern fillings. I recommend fried chicken with mayonnaise, crispy bacon and cheese, or grilled salmon with sujiko salmon roe.
Tip: This shop is very popular. If the line is too long, head inside and order the onigiri to go.
With tonkatsu, thick slices of pork are breaded, deep-fried, and cut into smaller pieces that are easy to pick up with chopsticks. It’s a popular dish in bento boxes served on train stations and at department stores and usually includes a katsu sando tonkatsu sandwich, which is eaten at room temperature (and comes with sushi and simmered vegetables).
Where to get it: Maisen Aoyama is Tokyo’s most famous tonkatsu spot—it has branches at train stations and in many department stores. But its main restaurant is set in a former bathhouse in the Omotesando area. It’s a huge space with seating on two floors—but it’s popular, so don’t be disappointed if the line is long. It’s worth the wait. At the restaurant, diners enjoy hot tonkatsu pork cutlets served with rice, julienned cabbage, and miso soup. On the table is a sauce that is poured over both the pork cutlets and the cabbage. I like to get my tonkatsu served in a sandwich at the retail shop in front of Maisen Aoyama.
Tip: After lunch, stop at Koffee Mameya, a tiny coffee shop in a residential area just behind Maisen: It’s one of the city’s most famous coffee shops.
Travelers say: “This is the must-visit for Tonkatsu for each visit to Tokyo. The bread crumbs are just delightfully crispy and light and the pork always succulent. Each day, only a limited number of servings of some special pork are available, so it always pays to arrive early while they’re still available. After the meal, the takeaway sandwiches also make for a nice snack later in the day.”—@quicktake100
Udon are thick and chewy noodles made from wheat. Udon aficionados usually order the bukkake—a style of cold noodles served in a large bowl with broth on the side.
Where to get it: At Ningyocho Taniya, the udon is made in-house, rolled into a thick sheet, cut in the front of the restaurant behind a window, and boiled to order. Taniya is brightly lit with casual seating at communal tables. I recommend getting your bukkake noodles with tempura-like Kashiwa chicken, chikuwa fish cake, and sweet potato. Tani san, the owner of Taniya, is from Kagawa prefecture, which is famous for udon—and this is the authentic style of udon that Kagawa is famous for.
Tip: If you love spice, order Ningyocho Taniya’s curry udon with cheese—it’s got a kick.