The sheer quantity and variety of food in Tokyo will amaze you. Department stores have food halls, typically in the basement, with food which surpasses top delicatessans in other world cities. Some basements of train stations have supermarkets with free taste testers. It's a great way to sample some of the strange dishes they have for free.
Tokyo has a large number of restaurants, so see the main Japan guide for the types of food you will encounter and some popular chains. Menus are often posted outside, so you can check the prices. Some shops have the famous plastic food in their front windows. Don't hesitate to drag the waiting staff out to the front to point at what you want. Always carry cash. Many restaurants will not accept credit cards.
Tokyo has literally tens of thousands of restaurants representing more or less every cuisine in the world, but it also offers a few unique local specialties. Within Japan, Tokyo cuisine is best known for 3 dishes: sushi, tempura, and unagi (freshwater eel). Nigirizushi (fish pressed onto rice), known around the world around simply as "sushi," in fact originates from Tokyo, and within Japan is known as Edo-mae zushi (Edo-style sushi). Another is monjayaki (もんじゃ焼き), a gooey, cabbage-filled version of okonomiyaki that uses a very thin batter to achieve a sticky, caramelized consistency. It is originally from the Tsukishima area of Chuo and today there are many restaurants near Asakusa offering monjayaki.
Go to a convenience store (konbini), there is one on every second corner. Really, the options may surprise you. You can get rice balls (onigiri), bread-rolls, salads, prepared foods (like nikuman and oden), and drinks (both hot and cold) for ¥100-150, bentō lunch boxes for around ¥500 and sandwiches for ¥250-350. At most convenience stores, microwaves are available to heat up your food for no additional cost. Supermarkets (sūpā) are usually cheaper and offer a wider choice, but are more difficult to find. (Try Asakusa and the sidestreets of Ueno's Ameyoko market for local—not big chain—supermarkets.) Also, ¥100 shops (hyaku-en shoppu) have become very common, and most have a selection of convenient, ready to eat items. There are ¥100 shops near most minor train stations, and usually tucked away somewhere within two or three blocks of the big stations. In particular, look for the "99" and "Lawson 100" signs; these chains are essentially small grocery stores.
Also, look for bentō shops like Hokka-Hokka-Tei which sell take-out lunch boxes. They range in quality and cost, but most offer good, basic food at a reasonable price. This is what students and office workers often eat.
Noodle shops, curry shops, and bakeries are often the best option for people eating on the cheap. They are everywhere. The noodle bars on every corner are great for filling up and are very cheap at ¥200–1000. You buy your meal ticket from a vending machine at the door with pictures of the dishes and hand it to the serving staff. The one question you will typically have to answer for the counterman is whether you want soba (thin brown buckwheat) or udon (thick white wheat) noodles. Some offer standing room only with a counter to place your bowl, while others have limited counter seating. During peak times, you need to be quick as others will be waiting.
Fast food is available just about everywhere, including many American chains like McDonald's and KFC. But if you are visiting Japan from overseas, and wish to sample Japanese fast food, why not try MOS Burger, Freshness Burger, Lotteria, or First Kitchen? If you're looking for something more Japanese, try one of the local fast food giants, Matsuya, Yoshinoya, and Sukiya, which specialize in donburi: a giant bowl of meat, rice, and vegetables, sometimes with egg thrown in for good measure, starting at below ¥300 for the flagship gyūdon (beef bowl). Another good option is oyako don (chicken and egg bowl, literally “mother and child bowl”), which the somewhat smaller chain Nakau specializes in. Drinking water or hot ocha (Japanese green tea) is usually available at no extra cost. There are also a number of tempura chains, with some budget options. More upscale but still affordable and rather more interesting, is Ootoya, which serves up a larger variety of home-style cooking for under ¥1000.
Raw fish enthusiasts are urged to try kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi), where the prices can be very reasonable. Prices do depend on the color of the plate, however, and some items are very expensive, so be sure to check before they start to pile up.
A great option for a quick bite or for groups is yakitori (grilled chicken) – individual skewers are often below ¥100.
Many of the larger train and subway stations have fast, cheap eateries. Around most stations, there will be ample choices of places to eat, including chain coffeeshops (which often serve sandwiches, baked goods, and pasta dishes), yakitori places, and even Italian restaurants.
There are a great many excellent and affordable lunch choices in busier neighborhoods like Shibuya and Shinjuku, especially during the week – expect to spend about ¥1000 (without drinks) for a meal.
By tradition the basement of almost any department store, including Mitsukoshi, Matsuzakaya, or Isetan, is devoted to the depachika (デパ地下), a huge array of small shops selling all kinds of prepared take-out food. You can assemble a delicious if slightly pricey picnic here – or, if you're feeling really cheap, just go around eating free samples! The very largest department stores are Tobu and Seibu in Ikebukuro, but Shibuya, Ginza and in fact any major Tokyo district will have their fair share. Shinjuku Station is home to several famous department stores, such as the Keio and Odakyu department stores. Many stores begin discounting their selections at about 19:00 each night. Look for signs and stickers indicating specific yen value or percentage discounts. You will often see half-price stickers which read 半値 (hanne). This discounting is also common at supermarkets located at the smaller stations, although the quality may be a notch or two down from the department stores, it's still perfectly edible.
The ubiquitous izakaya, a cross between a pub and a casual restaurant, invariably serve a good range of Japanese dishes and can be good places to fill up without breaking the bank: in most, an evening of eating and drinking won't cost more than around ¥3000 per person. See Drink for details.
There is a great variety of restaurants serving Tokyo’s world-famous sushi at every price point, with fish fresh from Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market. It is possible to get sushi for as little as ¥100/piece or less (at chain stores), or spend upwards of ¥10,000 yen (at elegant Ginza restaurants), but a typical spend is ¥3000–¥4000, depending on selection (drinks extra). Usually omakase (chef’s choice) gives a good deal and selection, to which you can add a piece or two a la carte if desired. A popular choice with tourists is a sushi breakfast at Tsukiji, particularly for one’s jet-lagged first morning, or after a night out partying. Most sushi shops in the outer market of Tsukiji open at 8 or 9 am, though there are some 24-hour shops, and particularly popular are two small stores in the inner market that open before 6 am and feature market ambience and very long queues; see Chuo: Mid-range dining.
The best-known tempura chain is Tsunahachi, where depending on the store you can pay from below ¥1000 for lunch to over ¥6000 for dinner.
A classic modern Japanese dish is tonkatsu (“pork cutlet”), and there are good Tokyo options; the fattier loin (ロース “roast”) is generally considered tastier than the leaner fillet (hire ヒレ). The most famous restaurant is Tonki, right by Meguro station (1-1-2 Shimo-Meguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo), serving a standard meal at about ¥1600, dinner only (from 4 pm). While it is an institution with a loyal clientele (and frequent lines), and decidedly has atmosphere (similar to an established New York deli), the food gets mixed reviews, and is less succulent than other options – an interesting experience, however. Next most famous is the chain Maisen (まい泉), which serves delicious if somewhat expensive tonkatsu (various varieties and seasonal options) at many locations in Tokyo, most notably at their flagship shop in Aoyama by Omotesandō station (Jingumae 4-8-5, closing at 7 pm). The top-end dish is Okita Kurobuta (Berkshire pork by Mr. Okita), at ¥3,800 for a meal, though they have cheaper options. A modern option is Butagumi, at Nishi-Azabu 2-24-9 (west of Roppongi station), serving a variety of premium pork brands expertly prepared.
Tokyo also has a large number of Korean restaurants, generally midrange, and many yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurants are Korean-influenced.
Tokyo has the world's highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants, with prices to match. For upmarket Japanese eats, Ginza is guaranteed to burn a hole in your wallet, with Akasaka and Roppongi Hills close behind. Top-end restaurants are primarily Japanese, with a few French. Beyond sushi, Japanese contemporary, and tempura, kaiseki and kappō cuisine are also high-end specialities. You can limit the damage considerably by eating fixed lunch sets instead of dinner, as this is when restaurants cater to people paying their own meals instead of using the company expense account.
There are currently four 3-star sushi restaurants in Tokyo, of which the most famous internationally is Sukiyabashi Jiro (home), due to the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi; reservations must be made on the 1st day of the preceding month, as they book up that day, and dinner is from ¥30,000. The cheapest of these top sushi restaurants is Saitō Sushi (03 3589 4412), where a small lunch can be had for as little as ¥5,000.
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