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Japanese Small Plate Dining

Prawns, grilled and butterflied at Syun Izakaya outside Portland
Photo caption
Prawns, grilled and butterflied, are among the offering at Syun Izakaya outside Portland.

Sushi? It's so old school—the country's first sushi bar opened in Los Angeles 42 years ago. The latest word in Japanese dining is izakaya, from the verb i (to remain) and the noun sakaya (sake shop). A bar, in other words, but one that offers small dishes.


"An izakaya serves sashimi, grilled fish, simmered vegetables, some steamed or deep-fried—a mix of preparations," says Hiroko Shimbo, a chef-consultant and author. Despite the tie to sake, she says, patrons also drink beer and shochu, a distilled beverage. Modern izakayas may sell wine as well.

"The traditional izakaya is perceived as a tavern, but we're a restaurant," says E.J. Varela, the general manager of O Izakaya Lounge (415-614-5431, in San Francisco's Japantown. "We're trying to move it up two or three notches." Chef Nick Balla buys local ingredients and urges patrons to order the classic way, trying lots of small dishes such as pork belly braised with kimchi or seaweed salad with mustard greens and tsukemono (pickled plums). End with rice, soup, and pickles, Balla suggests.

Initially a fusion restaurant, dramatic Hime in the Marina District of San Francisco (415-931-7900, now embraces small plates. At Kisaku, to the south in San Mateo (650-347-4121), some 40 items are listed as appetizers next to nearly 30 specials. Photos on the menu at nearby Izakaya Mai (650-347-2511) make for easy ordering.

Other choices? Look around in Hawaii, says Wanda Adams, food editor at the Honolulu Advertiser. She favors traditional spots such as Imanas Tei (808-941-2626) and Izakaya Nonbei (808-734-5573). In Hillsboro, Ore., outside Portland, Syun Izakaya (503-640-3131), tucked away in a former library, features a range of izakaya plates and nearly 50 sakes. And at Sake House Ichiza in Las Vegas (702-367-3151), specialties include hot skewers of chicken and vegetables, starting at $1.10 each. Meet you there?

Photography by Susan Seubert


This article was first published in July 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.