Before arriving in Tokyo, most visitors can't comprehend how vast or dense the city is, or how those traits seem to infinitely complicate each other. You can read as many Tokyo restaurant guides as possible to prepare for every potential craving or situation that may arise — locating the best tempura spot within 500 feet when you find yourself starving in a strange neighborhood — or you can just look at the same site that locals and obsessives do: Tabelog, the definitive catalog of restaurants in Japan. This crowd-sourced restaurant-rating service offers around 131,000 listings for Tokyo alone, broken down into more than 50 genres and dozens of subcategories (a search for "ramen," for instance, pulls up more than 6,000 listings), with ratings for nearly all of them.
Tabelog might sound a lot like Yelp, but there's a key difference: it is much, much better (even if it looks uglier).
Like Yelp, crowds of anonymous diners award ratings on a five-star scale, but while Yelp ratings are notoriously inflated, Tabelog grades on a harsh curve: The general rule of thumb is that anywhere with a rating of at least 3.5 is very good; restaurants with more than four stars are excellent and often Michelin-starred; and the few establishments that have managed to accrue 4.5 stars or above are legendary, with reservations that are nearly impossible to acquire (Saito, Quintessence, Matsukawa, and so on). There are currently no five-star restaurants on the site.
While Japanese chefs complain about unfair criticism from anonymous internet critics on Tabelog, just like American chefs do about Yelp, anonymity functions less as a smokescreen for wanton slander than a method of allowing honest feedback within the bounds of being polite. In general, Japanese diners don't complain directly to restaurants about a bad experience, and it's inappropriate to leave a tip to show appreciation for a good one; it's also something of a faux pas to openly share detailed dining knowledge with others, since it can come across as boasting about one's stature.
Instead, more than 60 million monthly users take to Tabelog to anonymously share their experiences. Most reviews on Tabelog tend to focus on the food, with more detailed entries written about higher quality establishments, often describing every course of the meal, sometimes with immaculately staged photos. (However, since the rise of Instagram in Japan, most refer to Tabelog for the ratings, then head to Instagram to look at food photos.) Bad reviews are indicated by scant star ratings rather than long negative rants, reflecting a general cultural tendency to be stoic about unsatisfactory experiences (even online, people tend to reserve unsavory opinions for outlets like 2chan, where other salty words are carelessly tossed about).
What makes Tabelog reviews so trustworthy is that in Japanese online communities, users typically treat the platform as a way to display their expertise without worrying about judgement from their peers, and they often work hard to build their alter-ego and gain a large following. The result is that dining enthusiasts strive to flex their acumen with consistently meticulous, accurate, and detailed reviews, and most locals trust Tabelog more than Michelin guides or other alternatives, like Gurunavi (a partner of Michelin and TripAdvisor), Retty (a small-scale app), Foursquare (mainly used by foreigners living in Japan and travelers), or Yelp, which is yet to take off in Japan.
One important caveat about using Tabelog: It recently launched a separate English-language version, which is watered down, less useful than the Japanese site and harder to navigate. Because there's also no way to search for a restaurant by name, the best way to check out a specific spot is to do a Google search from your computer or phone and tack "Tabelog" onto the name of the restaurant: "Torisawa Tabelog." Otherwise, you can choose a specific area, then drill down into the category or ranking you want.
Tabelog's English site comes in handy if you happen to stumble on a restaurant without an English menu; if you have its Tabelog page pulled up on your phone, you can simply point at the photos to ask for whatever looks good. As rude as it may seem, this is a completely acceptable way to order in Japan (just remember to smile).
If you don't read Japanese, Tabelog may be a bit challenging to use — at times it's almost painful — but once you get the hang of it, it's worth every torturous minute of learning how to navigate through the site, since it rarely steers diners wrong.
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.