One thing I noticed immediately after coming to Japan was that most Japanese food restaurants specialized in a particular style of food.
A ramen restaurant served only ramen (and sometimes “gyoza,” a popular side dish), an udon house served only variants of udon, a sushi bar
served only sushi (unless you go to “kaitenzushi,” which is conveyor sushi restaurant), and tonkatsu (Japanese deep fried pork cutlet, similar to schnitzel) place only had deep fried meat.
This was kind of strange to me.
In Vancouver (as of 2008 when I left*), most Japanese restaurants had pretty much all kinds of Japanese food.
If you walked into a Japanese restaurant, you could always find sushi on the menu.
And it wasn’t weird to go into a Japanese restaurant with a picture of sushi on the street sign and finding “katsudon” (tonkatsu on rice with onion and eggs) on the menu.
In fact, one of the more popular all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants also had Korean and Chinese food on the menu.
At the time, it wasn’t really clear to me why the restaurants here didn’t bother trying to appeal to a wider customer base.
But then I learned that food in general is one of the most popular topic with the general public, and that “good food” is highly sought-after.
So for a restaurant to become and stay popular, it paid off to advertise itself as a specialist rather than jack-of-all-trades kind of restaurants.
So how do you know if a restaurant’s actually good rather than just trending at the moment after being featured in a variety show on TV?
There’s a website: Tabelog (http://tabelog.com/en/).
It’s the most popular restaurant guide in Japan, and it aggregates user reviews on a scale of one to five stars.
The site used be in Japanese only, and using it meant tabbing between Google to search for the kanjis I needed so I could copy-and-paste them in the search field.
And then switching tabs again so Google Translate could make sense of the reviews for me.
The good news is that the site is now also (partly) in English, and is fairly foreigner-friendly.
One oddity about the English version though, is that you can only search for restaurants by location (but not the name of the restaurant). I have no idea why the search function is missing such a basic feature, but the site’s still useful for tourists and for those interested in exploring new restaurants.
If you know the name of the area you’ll be close to (e.g. Shibuya), type that in the “Location” field at the top right corner on the main page.
If you know that you’ll be close to a major station, click that from the names list that appears (e.g. Shibuya Station).
I found that I tend to get better results that way.
You’ll now see a list of the restaurants in the area with reviews, which can be sorted according to “Standard,” “Overall ranking,” or “Reviews.”
I don’t really know which factors “Standard” takes into account, but after a quick search of restaurants near my home station, I can say I agree with the ratings for the most part (with either “Overall ranking” or “Reviews”).
Just a quick note–if a restaurant has reasonable number of reviews (say, 50-100) and the average of the scores is above 3.4 stars, then you can be assured of above-average quality.
The user reviews are displayed in their original language (Japanese).
If you want to know what people wrote about the restaurant you’re thinking of visiting, you still have to put your faith in the veritable gateway to knowledge that is Google Translate.
That’s about it for this post.
So get out there, and find something new restaurants!
If you find a good one, be sure to let others know in the comments section.
*It’s different in Vancouver now, and the idea of specialized restaurants took off in popularity a few years ago.
When I went back last year, there were popular sushi bars and ramen houses that served only dishes they were experts at cooking.