An izakaya is a place to go after work is finished to drink and share light snacks between friends or colleagues. If we want to look into the origins of this type of establishment, one must look back to the Edo period (1603 C.E. – 1868 C.E.), in which a sake merchant who was serving a tasting of several of his beverages in the corner of his shop decided it would be a nice touch to also serve local delicacies with the alcohol. It was such a good idea that soon, local merchants were meeting after they closed their shops to discuss the various doings of the day, and the rest is history.
Until the 70s, they were an oasis for salarymen—middle-aged men who worked for companies. However, a new generation, which included women in the workforce, started to make their way into the izakaya. Today, you’ll find that these establishments host many different types of groups, all of which want to unwind and have a good time.
While, traditionally, these establishments were found in Japan, you may find some version of them anywhere a large population of Japanese emigrated to work. So that means that you’ll find them in many major cities. They may cater to different cultural needs, but the concept of the izakaya is still at the core—a place to go and be relaxed, to enjoy, indulge, and unwind from a long day.
What Do We Eat at an Izakaya
There’s a large variance in what is regionally favored. As well, Izakaya in other countries may cater to a wider range of tastes. However, what is assured, as in most types of drinking establishment around the world, the fare will be relatively inexpensive and satisfying. Here’s a sampling of what you will find in a range of izakaya.
This literally means “As You Like It.” It’s typical in Osaka, but can be found elsewhere. It’s a pancake, which may be grilled at the table as dictated in its hometown, made of flour, eggs, and other undistinguished things. While it’s crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside, it isn’t the star attraction of the dish. Atop the pancake may be pork belly, shredded cabbage, squid, and other savory items. It’s all drizzled with kewpie mayonnaise—made using only the egg yolk—tonkatsu sauce—which is a combination of Worcestershire sauce, oyster sauce, and sugar—and a bit of katsuobushi, or bonito flakes.
This dish comes with associations of street vendors, who sell it on sticks. It is a soy-marinated whole squid that is grilled whole and then served sliced into rings. It’s very simple and satisfying.
Part of the tradition of places in which you may drink to excess is the serving of friend foods. Korroke are like fritters or croquettes—made with mashed potatoes and crab meat, then crusted with panko breadcrumbs.
It’s fried chicken, but with a signature twist—these bite-sized pieces are coated in potato starch. That gives them a lighter, less greasy texture, which everyone can enjoy.
Pot stickers would be the closest thing to which one could compare these dumplings. Stuffed with ground pork and vegetables, they’re served with a sauce that consists of chili oil called rayu, soy, and rice vinegar.
Originally from the city of Nagoya in the Chubu region of Japan, these double-fried, batterless wings are a major hit. They’re tossed in a savory-sweet sauce made from mirin, soy, and sake, finished with a sprinkling of sesame seeds.
This is a dish well-received by people from a wide variety of cultures, because many have some variant of chicken on a stick. However, there’s one unique aspect to Japanese culture. It’s grilled over white charcoal, which imparts a smoky flavor without too much flame. As well, unlike many Western cultures, quite a few parts other than the meat are used, including the heart and kidneys of the bird. Kushiyaki are variants of this dish, using either another meat or vegetables.
Made with slightly salted and vinegared rice, these packets are perfect for the izakaya. The seaweed bundles are stuffed with salmon, cod roe, or pickled plum.
Other dishes served may be sashimi, yakisoba (noodles), edamame, goma-ae, salads, tofu in the form of agedashe dofu or hiyayakko, and various versions of tsukemono or pickles. There are, of course, specialty or themed izakaya, in which you may order things, such as Japanese “school lunch” items, but these are somewhat rarer.
This may be one of the more confusing customs around food. A seating charge is also known as otoshi, or tsukidashi in the western Kansai region. These aren’t found in fast food or fine dining restaurants, but seem to have cropped up in Japan’s izakaya. Essentially, you’re presented with a small dish of food that you did not order but will be charged for. This is a way for the kitchen to be sure they are receiving your order. As well, it’s a way for izakaya to ensure they receive their due if you are a light, slow drinker. In a country with urban centers as populated as they are, it isn’t surprising that space should be a consideration.
It will usually be something small, such as edamame or pickled vegetables, and should never be seen as an inconvenience. After all, it is great to snack upon as you consider your (yes) second drink. Usually, people order drinks upon sitting, with a call of “Toriaezu Biiru.” This simply means, “I’ll have a beer, first.” And it is meant to go with the first toast, possibly the only one, of the evening.
Getting a Table
While the premises of an individual izakaya is relatively small, they are, almost literally, everywhere. They are even in the train stations. So, getting a table at one isn’t usually a problem, since you or your host will have an assortment of favorite izakaya from which to choose. It does depend on how large your party is, but usually, there is little to no waiting time.
In some establishments, you’ll be asked to remove your shoes. These can be kept in provided shoe lockers, and a pair of toilet slippers are provided inside washrooms. The toilet slippers are not meant to leave the wash room at all, and doing so is a hug faux pas. While cleanliness and custom dictate the removal of shoes, the use of tatami mats or kotatsu-style, sunken seats should be seen practical. It keeps them clean and reduces the need for mending or replacing.
Ordering is a relatively unformed operation. Unlike more formal dining establishments, an izakaya acts as a tapas bar or pub, in which people order more food as the night progresses. Your server will usually keep a tab for your table. In the more modernized or chain izakaya, this might be kept as a chit or tab on the table. However, in the more traditional and smaller establishments, this is kept by the person waiting upon you.
The Meaning of Tabehodai and Nomehodai
Both of these translate as “all you can drink.” However, that’s a misconception. Tabehodia means “all you can eat,” and Nomihodai means “all you can drink.” The root term “-hodai” means an unrestricted access to something, which is a useful term. It has become popular over the past few years to offer happy hours, in which you may drink as much or as little as you want for a set fee. The corresponding term for food is also applied.
While there were plans ahead of the 2020 Olympics to ban smoking in every eating establishment, there’s little news that this will change on schedule. As of 2020, people were still permitted to smoke in most Izakaya, with the exception of individual establishments that offered a non-smoking section.
Yes, it seems to go against the grain of many western countries. However, the spirit of the Izakaya is intended to be a place where cares may be set aside. In a culture that offers so much structure, play time and the chance to unwind are taken seriously, and breaking the habit of smoking while drinking may take a bit of time. If you are averse to smoking, make sure you find spaces that offer a non-smoking section.
In traditional izakaya, your server will divide the total equally between everyone in your party, irrespective of how much or little they ate and drank. It’s not worth the fuss to go against the grain of this culturally-rooted collective behavior, so please be prepared for it. As well, while most of the larger, modern izakaya do take credit cards and debit cards, many of the smaller operations do not. It’s always best to check before you are seated if you plan to pay with a credit card.
While the izakaya is often compared to tapas bars or pubs, it’s unique to Japanese culture. It evolved uniquely and without the influence of western customs. As well, while today you’ll find a number of variants, the original template has remained unchanged for many generations.