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Six Tips for First-Time “Japanese Izakaya” Patrons

2016.11.16

Lantern at the entrance of Japanese restaurant in Tokyo Japan

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Enjoying your izakaya experience

Japanese izakaya are said to have evolved from sake stores that allowed customers to sample the wares on the premises. In fact, the name literally means something like "seated sake store." Today, izakaya are a unique kind of establishment, not quite bars and not quite restaurants, with their own unique way of doing things and etiquette for patrons. Here we offer six simple guidelines for making a visit to an izakaya a pleasant experience for everyone involved.

1. Enjoy your otōshi

Almost as soon as you are seated at an izakaya, and certainly before you order, your waiter will bring everyone in your party a tiny bowl of food. This is a kind of appetizer called an otōshi. Technically, otōshi aren't free; they usually appear on the bill at 300–800 yen per person. But it makes more sense to think of that as the entry fee, and the otōshi itself as complimentary. This is because refusing the otōshi is considered extremely rude. Remember, too, that the kitchen creates the otōshi ideal prelude to the rest of the food they make. (If your otōshi contains something you can't eat, the best strategy is to give it to someone else at your table.)

Sea Urchin and appetiser at Izakaya

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2. Order drinks first

Izakaya tend to have extensive menus with a wide range of options. Browsing through the menu is part of the fun and can take quite a while. As a result, it's customary to order a round of drinks as soon as the waiter brings the menus, and then start deciding what to eat. Hence the common phrase "toriaezu nama"—"Beers to start with."

(If you don't drink alcohol, you should still order a soft drink—juice and oolong tea are both normally on the menu.)

Next page: "Get at least one dish per person... but order strategically!"