Restaurants and Cafés: overview

Discover Kyoto's best and tastiest

Restaurants and Cafés: overview

The great news for gourmands is that Kyoto is obsessed with food. With good reason, too. This is a city of culinary perfectionists, some of whom are working to recipes that have been handed down through a dozen generations. After 300 years of practice, a dish ought to be delicious.

Now the bad news: for all the quality, there’s not much variety. Local culinary pride is so strong that there seems little interest in what the rest of the world, or even the rest of Japan, has to offer. With a few notable exceptions, most of them listed here, if you want to eat well in Kyoto, eat Kyoto’s food.

Many restaurants specialise in one type of cuisine. Tempura restaurants serve tempura and only tempura. Soba shops sell soba. Some places go further by offering just a single set meal. Dine at Daiichi and you won’t need a menu – all it serves is turtle hotpot. Guests at Warajiya eat a similar meal, but with eel in place of turtle, Toriiwaro does likewise with chicken, and Seigen-in offers simmering bowls of tofu.

In the kaiseki restaurants that serve Japan’s version of haute cuisine, you can sometimes choose the number of courses for your meal (pick the shortest – it will still be more than most people can manage), but there won’t be a menu. At Nakahigashi, your dinner is partly determined by what the chef foraged from the riverbanks that morning. Even in the humblest ramen shop or rice bowl joint, the kitchen is often staffed by artist-technicians.Put yourself in their hands and reap the rewards of their obsession.

The flipside, of course, is that you might not share the palate or preferences of the chef. Taste buds groomed on greasy foods may miss the subtlety of a radish in broth as a full course, and anyone who finds raw fish adventurous will surely struggle with milt, a local delicacy. If you don’t know what milt is, there’s a clue in the Japanese name for this fishy product: shirako (literally ‘white children’).

This city guide was released shortly before Michelin’s first look at Kyoto, and there ought to be plenty to please the inspectors. For locals, though, the culinary survey is likely to prove contentious. Debates have raged for decades, centuries even, over which is the best kaiseki, soba, tempura or tofu restaurant. In a city where only perfection is good enough, offering two stars would be an affront to many establishments. Locals who have long touted their favourite eaterie as the finest in the world, won’t want to hear that it’s not.

Whatever the ratings, and whether the restaurants embrace or reject their stars, there are more meals-of-a-lifetime in this small city than any place of similar size. Kyoto is the birthplace of kaiseki, perhaps the pinnacle of Japan’s dining scene. Amazingly, these multi-course feasts of fine dining began as a warm-up to a bowl of green tea. The most formal tea ceremonies could be interminably long, and a few bites to eat helped ensure that participants weren’t distracted by rumbling bellies.

Fast forward a few centuries. The meal still concludes with a bowl of tea and is often served in a private dining room styled on a tearoom, but the food is no longer the support act. Calling it ‘seasonal’ doesn’t begin to describe the timeliness of kaiseki. Your maid’s kimono, the room’s flowers, the scroll on the wall and the food on your plate will all reflect the season, month or even the day of your meal. The small dishes arrive in succession until, or usually well after, you are sated. It’s not a cheap experience. The most exclusive restaurants (Kitcho, Douraku) can charge more than ¥20,000 for lunch and up to ¥50,000 for dinner. But part of the price tag is for details that might not mean much to the average diner: calligraphy masterpieces on the wall, perhaps, or precious antique plates and bowls. There are cheaper options that involve no culinary compromise. Harise, Nishiki and Kanga-an, which serves a vegetarian version, are all good value – which is not to say cheap. Many kaiseki places also offer bento lunch boxes at a greatly reduced price. Expect to pay about ¥5,000 for a take-out meal from Doraku, Kanga-an or Kikunoi.

If even a ¥5,000 lunch sounds ludicrous, you can still eat fabulously well without resorting to the budget chains. Ramen shops, with their clattering pans and air thick with grease, are about as far removed from kaiseki as it gets, but that’s no bad thing – no one wants to see operas every night of the week. Nishin soba (smoked mackerel on buckwheat noodles) is a local favourite that developed in the days when the city, hemmed in by mountains, had little access to fresh fish. Kyoto is also famed for its high-quality tofu, and the streets around Nanzen-ji are known for their yudofu (tofu hotpot) restaurants. Junsei is the most celebrated. For good honest homestyle cooking, look for obanzai. This Kyoto-only rustic grub is served as a tray of small portions – a kind of Japanese tapas. The restaurant named after the cuisine is a good place at which to try it, as is Oku, where the recipes are crafted by one of the area’s star chefs.

Veggie Kyoto

Japan was once a vegetarian country, thanks to a decree issued by the nation’s 40th emperor. How things change: bonito broth is the basis of much of Japan’s modern cuisine, and meat is plentiful and popular. But Kyoto is blessed with a great variety of vegetables, and the city’s long Buddhist heritage means that many chefs know how to cook a meatless meal. Zen temples Ryoanji, Kanga-an, Daitoku-ji and Tenryu-ji all have vegan restaurants in their grounds. Elsewhere, many chefs will tweak their menus to accommodate herbivores if asked in advance. Tamaki, Misoguigawa, Il Ghiottone, Il Viale and Honke Owariya are all receptive to requests.

Night bites

Like everything else in Kyoto, the eateries close early. It’s not unusual to call last orders at 9pm. Kaiseki and shojin ryori restaurants have their last sittings even earlier, often as early as 7pm, due to the length of the meal. If you’re peckish late at night, your best best is to head to Kiyamachi in the Downtown district, where a handful of kitchens stay open until the small hours, and many bars offer cheap grub.

Eating alfresco

Each summer, restaurants along the Kamo river between Nijo and Gojo erect outdoor balconies, which are known locally as yuka or kawadoko. Eating alfresco, with a beautiful view of the lantern-lit river, is a tradition thought to date back to the 16th century. Not surprisingly, it’s incredibly popular, and it’s necessary to make reservations a long time in advance. The nearby districts of Takao and Kibune have similar riverside balconies each summer.

First time unlucky

There’s one local custom that visitors won’t find endearing. Ichigen-san okotowari means, roughly, ‘no first-time visitors’. Sometimes, this rule is what it claims to be – guests must be introduced via a regular patron. At other times, it’s an excuse to turn away anyone that might lack the appropriate decorum (read: youths and foreigners). Most geisha teahouses fall into the former category, while small cocktail bars often take the latter approach. Since such bars tend to be overpriced, think of the policy as a great way to avoid overrated establishments. All the bars reviewed in this book welcome first-timers.

Getting there

Finding modern restaurants is easy; most have websites and clear signage. Older establishments can be more problematic. Often, the only way to identify them is the Chinese character on a small sign or split curtain. Before heading to dine at a traditional restaurant, ask your hotel concierge or ryokan staff to write the name, or better still, find a photo of the façade online.

Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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