The main difference between high-end and mid-range priced sushi shops is the skill level of the chef, which is typically a matter of where they apprenticed. Think of apprenticing like attending school, and like schools, there are varying degrees of prestige attached to different chefs: The more prestigious the master, the more skilled the apprentice is believed to be. However, regardless of who they studied under, almost all professional sushi chefs in Japan are highly skilled — if not, they would immediately be out of work. The fish served at restaurants with mid-range prices is also of excellent quality, and generally outstrips what you'd find at a U.S. sushi restaurant in the same price range; the central location of Tsukiji Fish Market means hundreds of chefs from around the city can visit it daily, selecting fresh ingredients sold under strict standards.
Mid-range priced sushi restaurants generally offer a choice between an omakase set meal or a la carte ordering. Omakase are tiered by pricing and determined simply by the number of pieces served, contrary to the common misconception that more expensive omakase feature higher-quality fish. Mid-priced sushi spots are often overlooked and disregarded by visitors since most aren't highlighted on English sites, blogs, or guidebooks — but don't be surprised if the meal blows your favorite sushi joint back home out of the water.
With more than 3,000 mid-range sushi restaurants throughout the city, the best way to choose spots, no matter where you are, is searching on Tabelog, Japan's largest restaurant listing site. Otherwise, the time-tested method of stumbling onto a shop that's crowded or has a line out front is pretty effective. Here are a few notable places to get you started.
Manten Sushi Marunouchi is one of the top mid-range shops in Tokyo, with frequent appearances on Japanese television shows and in restaurant write-ups. There's only one dinner option, a ¥6,000 omakase, which includes nine otsumami (small plates) and between 13 and 15 nigiri (depending on the day). The fish selections and skills of the chefs are close to high-end sushi shops and most of the reviews echo the same sentiment: no one understands why this place charges so little. Reservations through this booking site are a must. Marunouchi Brick Square, 2-6-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 6269 9100 | Booking site: www.yoyaku.toreta.in/mantensushi | Website: www.manten-sushi.com
Since Jūzō Sushi earned a Michelin Bib Gourmand, it is now extremely difficult to reserve one of its six counter seats. The space is practically a cubby hole, and it only serves one type of set meal a day. Reservations are taken through its website just a week in advance — unlike many popular sushi restaurants, which require months of planning — making the possibility of grabbing a seat slim, but not impossible. With generous amounts of high-quality sushi for only ¥6,000, it's a steal. 2-4-2 Asagayakita, Suginami-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 5356 7166 | www.jyuzo.jp
Located in a residential neighborhood about 25 minutes by train from Shibuya, Sushikoma is another mid-range sushi restaurant recently awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand. The shop is usually filled with regulars, but the chef welcomes first-timers with the same warmth he extends to his loyal clientele (a rarity with the more popular sushi chefs). There are several omakase options, from ¥6,000 and up, and individual pieces of nigiri are also sold a la carte. 1-8-9 Yakumo, Meguro-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 5731 0035 | no website
Known for its unbelievable cost performance — ¥6,000 can put a person with an above-average-size stomach into a sushi coma — all five locations of the no-reservation Sushi no Midori are plagued by a constant line outside, with wait times of an hour or more. If this chain is on your list, head to the branch in Akasaka. It might mean waiting a little longer, but it's worth it: several of the chefs have been here so long, they have loyal, regular clientele who swear the Akasaka location makes the best of the chain's sushi. 2F 5-3-1 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 5545 5516 | www.sushinomidori.co.jp
Hanamaru is one of the most — if not the most — beloved conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Japan. Founded in Japan's northern prefecture of Hokkaido in 1983 to provide an affordable but excellent sushi restaurant for families, there are now nine branches in Hokkaido and two outposts in Tokyo. The chain is so highly respected by its peers in the sushi industry that Hanamaru buyers are known to have special access to some of the best fish of the day at Tokyo's Tsukiji Market. There are no reservations, and the lines can get really long at both locations, so going between lunch and dinner is the best move. Marunouchi: 5F Kitte Tower, 2-7-2 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 6269 9026 | Ginza: Tokyo Plaza Ginza 10F, 5-2-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 6264 5735 | www.sushi-hanamaru.com
If you're still on the fence about trying mid-range sushi restaurants in Tokyo, there is a way to taste the city's very best for reasonable prices. Because Japanese customers tend to be extremely frugal for lunch, many fine-dining restaurants offer unbelievable midday discounts and several high-end sushi restaurants have lunch deals, too. The only thing you're missing is volume: While a typical omakase dinner kicks off with several otsumami, followed by 12 to 14 pieces of nigiri, a lunch omakase deal may only include one or two otsumami (if that) and nine or 10 nigiri, which may mean you'll leave hungry. But sushi at this level can cost hundreds of dollars in the U.S., so it's still an incredible deal — just pad your stomach afterward with rice balls from a convenience store. Here are a few of the best lunch deals; note that you'll need reservations for all of them.
Sushi Kanesaka has trained some of the best sushi chefs in Tokyo, including Takashi Saito of Sushi Saito — the top-rated sushi restaurant in Japan, with a six-year run of three Michelin stars — plus the young guns of Sushi-Ya and Sushi Takahashi. Kanesaka is one of the most accessible and best introductions to traditional edomae (Tokyo-style) sushi, where the sushi is served pre-seasoned, either cured or brushed with the chef's original recipe for sushi soy sauce. Traditional edomae sushi rice is known to be heavily vinegared, but one of Kanesaka's signatures is mild rice.
While Kanesaka's dinner omakase starts at ¥25,000, the lunch omakase starts at just ¥5,000. Reservations are required. 8-10-3 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 5568 4411 | www.sushi-kanesaka.com
Shinbashi Shimizu is popular among elite sushi eaters who pop in for lunch when they can't get reservations at their regular spots or don't feel like paying more than ¥10,000 for lunch. Shimizu's sushi is also in the edomae style. The restaurant is pocket sized, with only eight seats. Its dinner omakase starts at ¥15,000, but prices are slashed to ¥8,000 at lunch. Reservations are required. 2-15-13 Shinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo| +81 03 3591 5763 | no website
Sushi Ginza Onodera offers perhaps the best lunch deal of any high-end sushi restaurant: A dinner omakase starts at ¥20,000; lunch prices hover between ¥5,000 and ¥5,999. The style is traditional edomae with a twist — the shari (sushi rice) is cooked in a kombu dashi. Reservations are required. 5-14-14 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 6853 8878 | www.onodera-group.com
Miyaba is one of the last retro, high-end sushi bars in Tokyo. Unlike in the U.S., sushi bars in Japan stopped storing and displaying their fish in glass cases in the late 1980s; instead, the fish are kept in wooden boxes, tucked inside refrigerators to keep the interior design as minimal as possible. However, Miyaba still has the look and feel of a sushi shop from 30 years ago, with dark counters and red geta (the boards on which sushi is served to a diner). It has a cult following among sushi eaters who crave the feel of nostalgic bars and is one of the highest rated and most respected sushi restaurants in Tokyo. Dinner prices start at ¥30,000, but lunch omakase set meals ranges from ¥5,000 to ¥5,999. 2-11-8 Hamamatsucho, Minato-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 3431 3880 | no website
Sushi Tsu in Roppongi is known for its chef's intricate knife skills — its most famous piece is the otoro nigiri with 50 hidden cuts — and the sushi is on par with the top shops in Tokyo. The 12-seat bar serves dinner omakase ranging from ¥20,000 to ¥29,999; reservations are required months in advance. Lunch is more accessible and runs just ¥5,000 to ¥5,999. 3-1-15 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 3404 2622 | no website
Raised in the Bay Area, then onto NY, LA and Tokyo, Mona Nomura has been surrounded by excellent food her entire life. When she is not thinking about, talking about or writing about food, she scours Japan for new ingredients and restaurants.