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Honolulu’s Japanese Food Guide: Where to Find Izakaya

To me, an izakaya is the perfect restaurant concept.


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Izakaya
AS STYLISH AS THEY COME: THE NEW IZAKAYA SHINN ON KING STREET DOESN’T LOOK LIKE TOKYO.  IT’S NEW YORK CITY COOL.
Photos: Olivier Koning

Once in Tokyo, I found a tiny izakaya, a sit-down sake shop. Can’t tell you the name, because I couldn’t read the sign.

 

Unlike every izakaya I’ve been in since, it was cheap. Everything, including sake, was 300 Yen (less than $3 at the time). It had a display of plastic food, so I could point to what I wanted.

 

One night I sat down next to a Japanese businessman with a little English, Haruhiro Utsumi (“Call me Harry”). Harry worked 12-hour days, six days a week, and when he was done, he said, he liked to DRINK SAKE!

 

That we proceeded to do. With food, of course. Harry may be the only person in the world who could talk me into eating deep-fried tofu on a stick, if that’s what it was.

 

We spent three to four hours talking about everything from baseball to world peace. When Harry left to catch the last train home, I realized he’d picked up the tab for the sake.

 

That evening may be why, of all the restaurant concepts in the world, my personal favorite is the izakaya. It’s a place to relax and drink with friends (or in this case, make one).

 

It’s not just about drinking. An izakaya isn’t an izakaya without food. Only the young and foolhardy drink without eating. More than that, eating is social. You don’t want individual plates. An izakaya puts food in the center of the table for all to share. It’s a simple formula: decent drink + good food + the warmth of friendship.

 

The same formula applies to great wine bars (say, Vino) and pubs (say, Murphy’s). However, in Honolulu, we’re fortunate that we’ve imported izakaya straight from Japan. Hawaii izakaya invariably call themselves sushi bars, but a true izakaya needs a kitchen, pumping out plates that perk up both the appetite and the spirits.

 

This month, hitting izakaya around town, I stumbled across some real finds, just like that night in Tokyo. No Harry this time, but a lot of fun.

 

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