For visitors, navigating Tokyo's restaurant world can feel intimidating, especially if you don't speak Japanese. Luckily, a little extra planning and a big heaping of politeness will go a long way. Tokyo resident and dining expert Melinda Joe guides you through everything you need to know to get the most out of your trip — without accidentally making a bad impression.
Smile and say, "Konnichi-wa."
Greetings are important in Japan, where the culture is defined by politeness and formality. Although English is increasingly spoken at restaurants in Tokyo, it is still far from common. A simple konnichi-wa (good day) or konban-wa (good evening) will help put your hosts at ease. A few basic phrases go a long way, so practice saying excuse me (sumimasen), please (kudasai), and thank you (arigato gozaimasu).
Whenever possible, reserve. Restaurants in Japan tend to be small and fill up quickly, so assume that you'll need to book in advance. Most accept dinner reservations, but some Japanese restaurants — especially casual places serving rice bowls or set meals — don't take bookings at lunch; you'll just have to wait in line. For fine-dining hotspots like Den and Florilege, you should book at least a month ahead; two weeks is recommended for popular izakaya (taverns) such as Kotaro, but calling a day or two in advance should suffice for most casual eateries. Reserving for groups of six or more can be tricky, so look for restaurants with koshitsu (private rooms).
In some cases, it's possible to book directly through the restaurant's website or Opentable, while services such as Voyagin can secure seats for a fee. However, many of Tokyo's restaurants have yet to enter the digital age, so the best way to reserve is by phone — or fax. If you're staying at a hotel, take advantage of the concierge service. Major hotels have a lot of pull.
Alas, there are places that turn away first-time customers. Because Tokyo eateries are often intimate spaces, proprietors are wary of newcomers disturbing the wa (harmony) among the guests. The best way to get into a restaurant like Kyoaji or Sushi Saito is to accompany a regular.
If you manage to get reservations, show up.
Restaurants in Tokyo may have as few as seven seats, and some high-end spots do only one dinner service per day. Given the high costs of rent and ingredients, failing to honor reservations can result in significant losses for small restaurants. If you have to cancel, do so as soon as possible. For last-minute cancellations, you may be charged the full price of the tasting menu, so check the restaurant's reservation policy.
Problems with no-shows and double bookings by tourists have made things harder for overseas visitors. Many restaurants now ask for a Japanese phone number to confirm your reservation the day before. If you don't have a local number, give your hotel's contact info.
And don't be late.
The Japanese value punctuality. Tardiness is considered rude and could cause you to lose your table. If you're going to be more than 15 minutes late, it's advisable to call ahead and let the restaurant know.
Substitutions are not a given.
If you have food allergies or dietary restrictions, let the restaurant know when you make the reservation. Many Japanese restaurants specialize in a specific dish — for example, tonkatsu (pork cutlets) or soba (buckwheat noodles) — and often can't accommodate many special requests. Giving the restaurant a heads-up will allow them to prepare.
Know when to book...
Many restaurants and shops close on Sunday and Monday. If dining is a priority, research your options beforehand. Even if the restaurant doesn't have a website, you can generally find the opening hours listed on Tabelog.
Reservations are tough to come by in December, when restaurants are booked solid with year-end parties. Christmas Eve is a prime date night, which means that you're likely to pay a premium for the special menu. The Japanese celebrate New Year's at home with their families, so most restaurants shutter from January 1-5. At this time, your best dining options are inside hotels. The same is true during the Obon holidays around mid-August, when restaurants generally close for up to a week.
And what time to eat...
Tokyo is not Barcelona. Lunch service typically runs from 12 p.m. to 2:00 p.m., while most restaurants serve dinner from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Izakayas, where you can order small plates for sharing, stay open later, but kitchens generally close by 11 p.m. For all-day dining options, look for cafés, noodle shops, and major chains like Ootoya. You can pick up a late-afternoon snack at one of the city's excellent bakeries, or in the many depachika food halls located on the basement floor of department stores like Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya. If you find yourself hungry at 3 a.m., convenience stores are open 24 hours.
Looking for street food? Head to Osaka.
Contrary to popular belief, modern-day Tokyo lacks a robust street food culture. Food stalls can be found at festivals and outside of parks, but they're hardly gourmet destinations. Many shops selling yakitori or takoyaki (octopus dumplings) have take-out windows (typically in addition to benches or tables for standing), but eating while walking is generally not accepted and eating on public transportation is a definite no-no.
Eat like a local.
Get comfortable using chopsticks, as Japanese restaurants may not have forks on hand. At high-end sushi bars, however, it's also ok to eat with your fingers. Just don't ask for extra soy sauce or wasabi; the chef will have already seasoned the fish, and even if he or she grants your request, know that you have not made a friend. At other Japanese restaurants, there are no hard and fast rules. The staff will guide you through each course. Note, however, that Japanese people speak softly at restaurants, so use your indoor voices.
Izakayas and tachinomiya (standing bars) are more relaxed, convivial spaces. Don't be surprised if neighboring diners approach you for a chat. When someone refills your glass, return the favor; pouring for others is good drinking etiquette. Plates are meant to be shared, and it's common to order a rice dish at the end of the meal.
Don't be afraid to slurp your noodles at ramen and soba shops. The Japanese see it as a sign that you're enjoying yourself. Be aware that lines are often long at noodle houses, so don't hang around once you've finished eating. The tendency of Western tourists to linger at busy eateries is a frequent complaint among owners.
When you're ready to pay, ask for the check with o-kanjo kudasai (bill, please). Tipping is not necessary. High-end restaurants add a 10-12% service fee to your bill, while more casual eateries usually tack on a nominal seating charge. Although paying with credit card has become more common, keep in mind that some restaurants accept only cash. Before you leave, be sure to say gochisosama desu — a polite way to express thanks for the meal.
Melinda Joe is a drinks columnist for The Japan Times and a sake judge for the International Wine Challenge in London. She has written for Newsweek, CNN, The Food Network, WSJ, and Departures Magazine.