A Japanese street in the evening lined with restaurants

Types of Japanese Restaurants

From traditional izakaya pubs to modern sushi bars, Japan offers a wide array of dining experiences catering to every taste and preference. Explore the unique flavors and ambiances of various restaurant categories to make the most of your culinary journey through this gastronomic paradise.

Japanese Restaurants are a testament to the country’s love for both quality food and quality service.  Eating out is one of the most popular ways to have a good time, bond, and nourish your body and soul.

From shopping streets, department stores, train stations, around shrines, to just any residential and commercial block –diverse dining options can be found everywhere. Often labeled with shining lanterns (advertising their specialties), hanging curtains over entrances, banners sticking out on the street, and even plastic models of their dishes, it’s super easy to spot a place to eat in Japan.

There are many Western options you’re already used to. But why not try some from the abundance of uniquely Japanese restaurants to choose from. Today, I’ll introduce you to the basic types of Japanese restaurants you’ll come across – and the essentials you should know to confidently walk in, order, and have a good time when you visit!

A street in Osaka and its many restaurants advertised with banners, lanterns, and street signs
A street in Osaka and its many restaurants advertised with banners, lanterns, and street signs

By the way – in this article, you’ll see the names of many well-known foods ending with “ya” (like sushi-ya or ramen-ya). In Japanese, this word “ya” (屋) means “shop” or “restaurant”. Add this word to food names if you want to ask for specialized restaurants and never suffer through food cravings again!

Food Stands: Yatai (屋台)

Japan loves its festivals (matsuri), and there’s no festive atmosphere without all kinds of food – offered on the yatai – food stands!

The food on the mobile stands may not be the most spectacular specialty you ever tried. But, the prices are low and the atmosphere is amazing – reason enough to try them out sometime.

Yatai offer all kinds of goods, but each will have a menu limited to two or three dishes. From the sweet taiyaki to the somewhat bland but soul-nourishing soup oden, you’ll find many of the famous Japanese recipes sold cheaply at food stands.

The only issue is, you can’t count on visiting the same yatai again. These mobile stands are convenient for business owners, who often change locations, in a never-ending hunt for hungry crowds.

Yattai -food stalls in the market
Simple and Homely: Set Menu Teishoku (定食) Restaurants

Don’t want to think too hard about your next meal? Go to a teishoku Japanese restaurant – a place that offers “table d’hôte”, or set menu offerings.

All you need to choose is the main dish (for example, pork cutlet, grilled fish, or tempura), and it comes surrounded by the right selection of miso soup, rice, Japanese pickles (tsukemono), and a variety of side dishes. In some of these restaurants, you can even have unlimited refills on rice and pickles, so eat up!

This is a very simple and affordable way to have lunch, so you’ll see popular teishoku restaurants (like the Yayoi-kenchain) crammed with businesspeople during lunch hours.

There are no strict rules, but if you want to eat your teishoku like the Japanese do, eat all of your dishes at the same time (yes, the soup too) with a bit of rice between each bite. A bit of rice, then a bit of soup, some more rice, a bite of your main dish, back to rice again, then some pickles, some rice again, and then some more soup, rice again, and so forth.
It may sound tedious, but it’s actually super delicious and filling – and the rice will help you appreciate the changing flavors in your mouth!

A Japanese Teishoku set meal with many dishes served on a tray
A Japanese Teishoku set meal

For Family Dinners: Shokudo (食堂) and Famiresu (ファミレス)

Like elsewhere in the world, family restaurants are the heart and soul of casual dining out on a regular basis in Japan. They’re called “Famiresu” (name that literally comes from family restaurant) or shokudo. In general, Famiresu are larger chains and shokudo are smaller, mom-and-pop-owned businesses.

They’re affordable, offer tasty food, and have something for everyone to eat (even picky children will find something they like!), but don’t offer much in terms of service or experience. Often, you’ll find different menus offered during breakfast, lunch, and dinner time.

These offer quite a few Japanese dishes, but if your taste buds get homesick, chain restaurants like Gusto, Denny’s, or Royal Host will also have a selection of Western dishes like pizza and hamburgers!

Pub-style Dining: Izakaya (居酒屋)

Unlike most dining establishments, Izakaya are loud, informal, crammed, and absolutely delightful.

The favorite after-work gathering place for many people in Japan, izakaya are similar to Western pubs. Along with alcohol, they serve hearty comfort food – from karaage fried chicken, grilled meat, hotpots, salads and finger foods.

Many izakaya welcome customers with an appetizer when serving drinks – even if they didn’t order any. You’ll be charged a small amount, called otoshidai (お通し代), as a cover charge for the service and appetizers.

While it’s not the best place to take your children, your adult friends will love the relaxed atmosphere and reasonable prices of an izakaya.

Eating and drinking at a Japanese Izakaya
Enjoying some food and beer at an Izakaya

Private Experience Haute Cuisine: Ryotei (料亭)

If you’re looking for an exclusive experience of Japanese haute cuisine (also known as kaiseki ryori), especially in a secluded atmosphere, you want to get on a guest list of a ryotei.

These high-end restaurants offer private tatami rooms for guests coming in groups, and are usually booked in advance.  These are traditional places that specially design gardens and rooms for a beautiful ambience, offer exquisite meals, and sometimes even hire geisha for guest entertainment. Of course, this traditional type of establishment dates back hundreds of years.

Enjoying a fancy meal at a ryotei

Bite-Sized Delights: Sushi Restaurants (寿司屋)

Sushi! The delight of Japan, loved across the world.

The bite-sized pieces can be found in a large variety of shapes, forms, and quality – and of course, at various price points. You can get sushi in a supermarket or pay hundreds of dollars at upscale restaurants. The array is amazing, but the important thing is – everyone can enjoy a little sushi from time to time, no matter the budget.

One of the most interesting (and affordable) types of sushi restaurants is called kaiten sushi, conveyor belt, or sushi-go-round. Order the sushi you want, eat, order again, eat… collecting the color-coded plates on your table. When you’re done, a staff member will count your plates and calculate the final price for you!

Soul Food on a Budget: Noodle Restaurants

Forget cup noodles! Soba, udon, and ramen restaurants are usually affordable and so much more delicious!

Noodle restaurants are perhaps the most widespread type of restaurant in Japan. They come in the widest variety of formats: from fancy restaurants with reservations to little booths where you eat standing up.

They usually specialize in a single type of noodle, offering it in a few different recipes and a variety of toppings. There won’t be much offered on the side – except for some gyoza or fried rice – and chances are you wouldn’t want to have anything else apart from that heavenly ramen bowl anyway.

Customer eating ramen sitting at a counter

Japanese Curry Restaurants (カレー屋)

Japanese people love their curry served over rice, noodles, or bread. So much so that there are many restaurants that specialize in the dish!
You’ll find a curry restaurant close to any major train station – a testament to how much the Japanese love their adapted (less spicy) Indian recipe.

Japanese curry with white rice
Cheap and Delicious: Beef Bowl Restaurants Gyudon-ya (牛丼屋)

Gyudon is a bowl of cooked beef served over rice (with an egg and scallions on top), one of the most nutritious and cheapest dishes you can get in Japan. As beef is cooked with onions and soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and sake, the meat strips have a tender texture and a sweet-savory flavor.

It’s not the most Instagrammable food, but it’s absolutely delicious and readily available whenever you get a hankering for it – many gyudon restaurants are open 24/7.

Grilled Meat Restaurants: Yakiniku, Yakitori, Teppanyaki

Grilled food restaurants may sound like a straightforward deal, but there are actually quite a few types of grill restaurants you can visit in Japan. In some, you even grill the food yourself.

Yakiniku-ya (焼き肉屋)

No need to explain how charred you like your meat – in a yakiniku restaurant, you grill it yourself.

Yakiniku restaurants are easy to recognize – each table has a built-in grill for customers to use. Yes, you’ll actually get a platter of raw meat and veggies, an array of dipping sauces, and a fired-up grill. This style of restaurant stems from Korea, and it’s quite popular.

Cooking meat on a tabletop grille at a yakiniku restaurant

Yakitori-ya (焼き鳥屋)

In search of a delicious, fairly-priced meaty meal? Get some skewered chicken grilled over charcoalyakitori.

Unlike yakiniku, yakitori restaurants make the food for you, so you can sit back, relax, and sip on some liquor while waiting for your dinner. Yakitori restaurants often stay open until late at night, so they’re popular spots to go out or for after-party meals.

Many sticks of Yakitori on metal grille racks

Teppanyaki-ya (鉄板焼き屋)

Teppan is the name of a large iron griddle. In these (quite expensive) restaurants, the guests sit around a counter and watch the grill chef prepare the food in front of them.

There are many dishes prepared on a teppan, including seafood and noodles, but if you’re looking for the right place to try some premium wagyu beef, a teppanyaki restaurant is a fantastic choice. You’ll often find this type of restaurant in nice hotels.

Sukiyaki in a cast iron skillet
In addition to grilled meats, boiled meats are popular. This is Sukiyaki, cooking in a cast iron skillet.

Freshwater Specialty: Unagi-ya (うなぎ屋)

Freshwater eel, called unagi in Japanese, is a type of fish that some restaurants specialize in – so that the fish they serve always meets the highest quality (and freshness) standards.

Somewhat expensive, but truly worth it once you try it, unagi is usually grilled over charcoal and served with rice.

While unagi is the main attraction to these Japanese restaurants, they often also serve loach (dojo), a smaller freshwater fish. Both are staples of Japanese cuisine.

Hitsumabushi is a multi course meal featuring broiled eel. This lovely dish is served on a tray.
Hitsumabushi, a regional favorite from Nagoya, is a multicourse meal made with broiled unagi

Savory Pancakes: Okonomiyaki-ya (お好み焼き屋)

Japan’s favorite crossover between pancake, hash browns, and pizzaokonomiyaki is affordable, super tasty, easily customizable, and comes in many shapes and forms.

Mix your favorite toppings (from cabbage to octopus) in batter and grill it on a griddle. In some okonomiyaki restaurants, you even get to grill it yourself on a little griddle installed in customers’ tables!

A chef cooks many okonomiyaki pancakes on a steam table
Deep-Fried Delicacies: Tempura (天麩羅) and Tonkatsu (豚カツ) Restaurants

When Portuguese ships first docked in Kyushu in the 16th century, they introduced Japan to Christianity, wine, refined sugar, and deep-fried food. Japan has nurtured its loving relationship with fritters ever since.

Tempura is a direct descendant of the Portuguese recipe – still reflected in its name – stemming from the PortugueseTemporas (referring to the religious Ember days of fasting). It’s mostly seafood, mushrooms, and veggies coated in flour batter and deep fried in sesame oil. Tempura is used as topping in many dishes, but it’s also eaten as is or over rice (tendon – short for tempura donburi) in specialized tempura restaurants. Cheap and absolutely delicious!

Tempura served in a basket

Tonkatsu, on the other hand, is a meaty, deep-fried delight that is definitely not a part of the Christian fasting menu. Created a bit later, tonkatsu (sometimes just katsu) is a pork cutlet, covered in breadcrumbs and then deep-fried.

In Japan, the cutlet is usually eaten with chopsticks and served with cabbage, rice, and miso soup. Eating pork cutlet with chopsticks can be a bit clunky until you get used to it, but it’s delicious, filling, and reasonably priced!

A Foodie’s Paradise

Whenever and wherever you go in Japan, there will be nice Japanese restaurants to eat out at. Japan’s diverse culinary scene Is second to none.

The country has a strong and developed hospitality culture, so great service is granted – whether you’re in a high-endryotei, a ramen shop at a train station, or a side-street yatai. After all, it is the country with the second-most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world – or, better said, a foodie’s paradise!

Do you have a favorite restaurant in Japan? Let me know!


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