Four Tips for Eating at Izakaya



Four Tips for Navigating Dining at Izakaya


Izakaya are a common type of drinking and dining establishment in Japan. They come in a variety of styles from budget-friendly chain restaurants with multi-language touch screens for ordering to those with tatami mats. There are even izakaya specializing in styles of food other than Japanese such as French or Italian. And since most izakaya serve their food tapas-style, they are a great place to try a little of a lot.

While many izakaya are becoming increasingly accessible for visitors from abroad with the creation of English menus and so on, there are a few things about dining at izakaya that might puzzle first-timers. Here are four tips for navigating your first visit to an izakaya.

Start with a cold one

Consider starting with a beer at an izakaya

After seating you, your waiter might ask you for your drink order right away before you’ve had a chance to look at the menu. That's because many Japanese like to start off with a beer right away. While it’s completely fine to ask for some time to examine the menu before ordering, you might want to begin your izakaya experience by ordering up a cold glass of beer (or oolong tea for those not inclined to drink alcohol) and toasting your dining companions with a hearty cheers or kanpai!

The otoshi

The otoshi: a small dish served in place of an appetizer at an izakaya

Your waiter might come along with a tiny appetizer you didn’t order. This is likely an otoshi, also called a tsukidashi in the Kansai region. This is served in lieu of a cover or table charge. You cannot refuse the otoshi and you will be charged for it whether or not you eat it, so you might as well enjoy it.

Call to order

Use the buzzer to call your server at an izakaya

You might also be surprised that your waiter doesn’t come to check periodically if you’re ready to order, how your food is, or if you need anything else. Like in many other kinds of eating establishments in Japan, you need to call the waiter to your table either by using a buzzer or by calling out sumimasen (sue-me-mah-sen), the Japanese word for excuse me. My Japanese friends were surprised to learn that in the US, we wait for our server to come to us or try to catch their eye when we need something.

Paying your bill

Finding and paying your bill at an izakaya

First, locating your bill might be a little tricky. The bill itself may be clipped to a clipboard. In this case, it can usually be found in a little slot under your table, hanging on the wall, or, if you’re dining in your own private room, hanging outside on the door frame. The bill might also simply be rolled up and sitting in a little holder on your table. If you cannot find your bill, you can call the waiter and ask for it by saying o-kaikei onegaishimasu (oh-kai-kay oh-neh-gai-she-mah-sue) meaning check please!

Once you have your bill, you will usually proceed to the cash register located near the entrance to pay. There are also some izakaya where you can pay your bill at the table. However, you cannot leave money with the bill on your table even if you have exact change or don’t want change. Also, there is no tipping in Japan!

Lastly, double check if the izakaya you’re going to accepts credit cards. Japan overall is becoming increasingly card friendly, but some smaller places are still cash only-- and that’s something you’d hate to find out after you and your friends have just finished enjoying a huge meal.

Illustrations courtesy of ohinot​.

Do you have any tips for stress-free dining at izakaya or other types of dining establishments in Japan? If so, please share them with us in the comments!

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