Izakaya is Japan’s answer to pub life. On 5pm on Friday in Japan you finish work and head to the nearest izakaya with your workmates for a relaxed round of saké, beer, yakitori, grilled fish, sushi and probably some significant workplace bonding. In Tokyo, there’s a street made up completely of izakayas; every single street number is dedicated to serving alcohol and comfort food. Japanese people have a word for how to approach an opportunity like this: hashigo. It literally translates to “ladder”, but in a drinking context each rung represents a different venue.
Sydney’s had a welcome explosion in izakaya venues, so here is our city’s first hashigo guide.
Outside of Japan’s big cities, the izakayas are so casual and friendly they’re almost like dining inside someone’s home. Often the owner will also be the chef, barman and even dishwasher. Nom is the closest Sydney has to this kind of experience. Besides Nom’s large range of Japanese alcohols, the alley-like bar is like a garden-side living room. The food is equally comforting and includes all the izakaya stalwarts, such as grilled fish, tempura, karage and sashimi, and nothing’s over $20. Try chef Kimiko Uriu’s saké of the month. Make sure to book ahead as the tiny space barely fits 20 seats.
Izakaya menus don’t follow a normal ordering structure. Entrees, mains, desserts, it doesn’t matter – just order whatever you feel like, when you like it. Chaco Bar (which specialises in ramen) is an excellent example. Most things come in small servings and everything is designed to share. Like most izakaya joints, the food here is salty, simple and easy. The kushiyaki skewers cooked over hot coals are particularly brilliant drinking snacks. Chef Keita Abe says his biggest challenge is to bring the joy of offal to Australians. Abe says any picky meat eaters should get the chef’s skewer range; some will be regular cuts and others might be hearts or livers – just don’t ask. He likes to pair his offal skewers with an almost savoury saké, such as Shinkame Junmai-ginjo.
My Zakaya owner Maria Uchida says going to an izakaya should feel like being welcomed to a friend’s house. My Zakaya feels like being welcomed not only into Uchida’s home, but her friendship as well. The gregarious manager says she got into the restaurant industry in order to “meet nice people”. Uchida has worked with chef Koji Matsuda to create a menu that reflects her approach to the restaurant. Try Matsuda’s homemade pork gyoza; fried sand whiting with angel-hair chilli and mayonnaise; or a plate of grilled mackerel. Uchida says saké goes particularly well with fish. If you’re unsure which to order, try one of the most popular brands, Otokoyama, which translates to “strong man”.
Tokyo Bird specialises in two things, Japanese whisky and yakitori. The yakitori, slow cooked and then flash-grilled over hot charcoals, is served juicy, lightly charred and drizzled with homemade tare sauce. The whiskey comes either approachably cheap or earth-shatteringly prestigious. The spicy but fruity Nikka Coffey Malt is a good middle ground to start with. Co-owners Jason Ang and Yoshi Onishi import it personally; they like it with Tokyo Bird’s chicken wings.
Izakaya Fujiyama – One of Sydney’s new-wave izakaya pioneers. It has an incredible saké selection and legendary fried chicken.
Yachiyo Katsu – Sister restaurant to Yachiyo Sushi, this bare box of restaurant specialises in katsu, Japanese crumbed chicken.
Toriciya – This two-decade-old izakaya has some of the most premium sakés available, and an incredibly good-value degustation for $65 a head.
Goro’s – Goro’s has a more modern menu than other izikaya’s, with items such as chilli dog, fried chicken with wasabi mayo and bao buns.
Kenny Rens – This hidden izakaya restaurant in Woollahra has a takeaway poke bar at the front and a wood-fired grill at the back.
Yebisu Izakaya – Inspired by the Japanese Yebisu beer, this tapas-style sake bar does a mean yakitori chicken served with a poached egg and sesame oil.
Updated March 30