Looking for authentic Japanese food in London? Great! Welcome to my personal guide to the best.
These are places where the staff (in the kitchen and serving) are Japanese, the menu is bilingual, there’s a Japanese atmosphere and Japanese customers. So the food’s traditional and good – which doesn’t just mean sushi but ramen, teppanyaki and lots more.
The places I recommend range from pricey to cheap. The food’s not necessarily outstanding – I’m not writing the Michelin Guide – but it’s food you’ll enjoy eating, with flavours you won’t find outside of Japanese cuisine.
Tokyo Diner is on the corner of Little Newport St, a hop and a step from Leicester Square tube and it’s just like a real Tokyo eatery. It’s cheap and it’s good.
It has an automatic sliding door and beaten-up wooden tables. You pay at the cash register when you leave and there’s no tipping.
When I go I usually have the curry rice or the salmon tataki but there’s an extensive menu and yes, you can have sushi.
Oddly enough it was started by an Englishman, Richard Hills, who wanted to recreate his experience in Japan where ‘most places offered delicious, satisfying, ‘ordinary’ food at sensible prices. They were warm and friendly. Above all, they were fun.’
All the staff, chefs and serving, are Japanese which is a guarantee of authentic food.
Go and see for yourself.
People have been telling me to go to Koya for months. ‘Oh, you have a page for authentic Japanese restaurants on your blog?’ they say. ‘Have you got Koya?’ And I’ve had to admit I hadn’t. Until now.
I have got some excuse for taking so long; Koya is not exactly in your face. It’s on Frith St in Soho, but you could walk the whole length of Frith St without noticing it, even if you were looking for it. One reason it’s hard to spot is that the name is written up in quite small, painted letters which don’t show up in the dark. It’s quite tiny and you can’t reserve so it normally has a queue outside.
The point about Koya is that it’s not a noodle restaurant, it’s an udon restaurant. It doesn’t do soba. It doesn’t do ramen. It does what it does and nothing else, which is the secret to doing something really well. It’s careful about its ingredients too, using locally-sourced produce that includes Welsh seaweed and English vegetables, and combining them with udon noodles for authentically Japanese dishes, simply served. I recommend the curry udon with tanuki topping. Read the full review.
Abeno is on Museum St, a minute or two’s walk away from the British Museum. It looks small from the outside but inside it’s quite deep with a long line of tables with steel hotplates in the centre.
Why the hotplates? Because is an okonomiyaki restaurant and the food is cooked at your table. Okonomiyaki is a sort of pancake made from eggs and shredded cabbage to which you can add a range of toppings like prawn, asparagus or bacon.
They serve Osaka-style okonomiyaki as the owner is from Osaka and it comes it two sizes – deluxe and super-deluxe. If you have a sweet tooth they also have quite a list of desserts. And for tourists who are desperate for a taste of home they do Japanese breakfast too.
It’s got a nice authentic feel with wooden tables and chairs and banquettes upholstered in fabric printed with cursive-script kanji. But it’s not a place to plan on spending an evening – the point about okonomiyaki is that you eat it and move on – there’ll be more customers wanting your table soon.
If you’re in the West End they have another branch, Abeno 2, which is just round the corner from Leicester Square tube. Read the full review here.
Kintan is a yakiniku restaurant on High Holborn, not far from Chancery Lane tube station. It looks quite small from outside, but inside it’s huge.
Yakiniku is barbecued meat, which you grill yourself on a tabletop grill. Yakiniku is popular in Japan: it’s very influenced by Korean barbecue cuisine, and will often feature kimchi (Korean pickled cabbage) on the menu.
Kintan offer a wide range of meat, including steak and ribs, seafood, cheese and vegetables for you to grill, plus salads rice and noodle dishes. You’ll need a healthy appetite if you order one of the set meals, which are extra large.
The grill is set into the centre of the table, and you put the thinly sliced meat on it, turning it once. It cooks very quickly, so it’s no good getting involved in the conversation and forgetting what you’re doing. But it makes for a different and fun experience. Read the full review.
It’s not all that easy to find So Japanese.
It’s on Warwick St which is in that baffling maze of streets between Regent St and Shaftesbury Avenue behind Piccadilly Circus and, as you can see from the picture, it doesn’t exactly shout out at you. I only went there because a Japanese friend took me and I’m glad she did.
It’s a quiet, elegant little place with kimono-clad waitresses and a selection of different Japanese teas to accompany your meal. They do rather nice set lunches – the menus are publishes on their website where it also tells you that some dishes are cooked over volcanic rocks imported from Mt Fuji.
You can’t get much more authentic than that.
Shoryu is on Lower Regent St. It specialises in Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen (noodles in pork broth) and its chef comes from Hakata so he knows his stuff.
Their basic Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen is excellent but they also do other kinds of tonkotsu ramen, like piri piri tonkotsu and wasabi tonkotsu for those who like their noodles spicy, or Yuzu tonkotsu which is flavoured with citrus.
There were plenty of Japanese (and non-Japanese) customers the day I went. It’s Japanese-run and, in a nice touch, the waiting staff all speak basic Japanese. They bang the drum on the counter when you leave – a jolly theatrical effect.
Try not to go at peak times (like lunchtime) unless you’re prepared to queue as it’s very popular and you can’t book. Read the full review.
I think of Matsuri, which opened in 1993, as the grandaddy of London Japanese restaurants, though it’s recently relaunched its sushi bar and appointed a new head chef.
It has an ‘establishment’ feel; if you’ve ever been taken out for a Japanese business lunch, chances are you came here.
It’s essentially a teppan-yaki restaurant, where the food is cooked on an iron grill in front of the customers. Its large basement-level space (the bar is on the ground floor) is filled with horseshoe-shaped tables seating around a dozen customers around the grill where the chef works. It’s a theatrical style of cooking, where watching the skill of the the chef is half the fun.
They have a good range of whiskeys and sake in case you want to celebrate; Matsuri (祭) means ‘festival’. Read the full review.
Kiku is on Half Moon Street, just around the corner from the Japanese Embassy.
It’s actually longer established than Matsuri as it’s been there since 1978.
Inside it’s deliberately simple with plain wooden tables and chairs and bamboo blinds at the windows.
It’s the place to go if you want an extensive range of excellent sushi, including my favourites shimesaba (marinated mackerel), anago (conger eel) and hamachi (yellow tail).
It’s generally reassuringly full of Japanese customers so if you want to eat surrounded by people speaking Japanese this is the place for you. Read the full review.
Sake no Hana is a modern Japanese restaurant in St James, located on the first floor of the Economist Building, a grey modern block flanking Economist Plaza. It’s an offshoot of Hakkasan, a modern Chinese restaurant which is also responsible for dim sum restaurant Yauatcha.
The decor is by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, It has a relaxed feel to it, and the mix of diners, some Japanese, some not, seem very at home.
There’s a sushi and sashimi counter where you can see the chefs at work and the sashimi is fresh and flavourful. They do a reasonably-priced lunch (though stay away from the sashimi if you’re on a budget) and it’s the perfect restaurant for a sunny day. Read the full review.
I only discovered Tombo deli and cafe when some friends who were over from Japan held their end-of-tour party there. Which is a bit embarrassing, as I live in London and they don’t.
But it’s always nice to find a restaurant because Japanese people go there and Cafe Tombo (it means dragonfly) didn’t disappoint. It’s very clean and white and pure inside, with white tables and chairs and square white dishes divided into compartments so your food is precisely organised for you. (That person who said ‘Just like school dinners’, go to the back of the class).
I was very impressed with my combination plate of sushi, skewered chicken and vegetables and their cakes and desserts are very more-ish too. There is a lot of emphasis on healthy dishes. You can get a green tea or red bean paste latte which has to be worth a visit.
It’s in Thurloe Place, just round the corner from South Kensington tube station and handy for the museums. A very pleasant place for a leisurely afternoon tea after the hurly-burly of the V&A. Read the full review.
Yashin Sushi is just off Kensington High Street. It fails a bit on the authenticity front, being quirky and modern and stylish, but none the worse for that.
Among its gimmicks are: serving the food on English china with the miso soup in a china teacup; serving up bite-sized sushi, like sushi canapés; and trying to persuade you to eat your sushi without soy sauce.
Apart from all that, the sushi is delicious and I can recommend the shiso ice cream too.
The place is normally filled with a fashionable crowd, especially in the evening; best to book. Read the full review.
I have a friend who runs a cafe in Ishibashi, which is a small town in western Japan. It’s tiny and friendly, decorated with cat ornaments and the menu is a photo album with pictures of the food hand-decorated with flowers.
I mention it because Cafe Bar Necco in Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell is just like that. I felt very at home there. Despite calling itself a cafe bar it actually does as big a range of food as many restaurants and has an interesting selection of Japanese desserts.
You can get an impression of its quirky charm from the website which states its philosophy as: ‘Necco: Japanese word for a cat. Cats are the master of easy, laid-back life and indulgence. We would like our customers to visit and enjoy such relaxed time when ever you fancy, like necco!’
So go and enjoy such relaxed time. You won’t be disappointed.
Kanada-ya has nothing to do with Canada. It’s named after its founder, Kazuhiro Kanada, a former bicycle courier who taught himself to cook ramen in his back garden in his home town of Yukuhashi. Yukuhashi is in Fukuoka, the home of Hakata tonkotsu ramen, and it’s tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen that Kanada-ya serves.
The menu is admirably concise; three noodle dishes; original, moyashi (bean sprouts) and char-shu, where pork collar takes the place of the pork belly in the original ramen, plus a short list of additional toppings and a small selection of onigiri rice balls, in the unlikely event that you’re still hungry.
Kanada-ya is only small; it seats twenty four and there’s always a queue to get in. But that’s a sign of its popularity as much as its size, and as word gets round it can only increase, so go now while you’re ahead of the pack. Read the full review.
You’ll find Ippudo London in the glitzy new glass skyscrapers of Central St Giles. It’s the latest opening from Shigemi Kawahara, who has eighty ramen restaurants in Japan and is now expanding around the world, with a presence in New York, Australia and Singapore and more.
The Ippudo concept is to turn a meal into a theatrical experience. So Ippudo London is shiny on the outside and low lighting and black leather seating on the inside. The staff, who are a typically London ethnic mix, all speak a bit of Japanese and greet you with loud cries of irassahimase (welcome) as you arrive and arigato gozaimasu (thank you) as you leave.
There’s a ramen menu, featuring shiromaru Hakata classic ramen and an a la carte menu offering teppanyaki, chirashi sushi or wagyu tataki among other dishes. If you’re going in the evening, go early – Ippudo fills up fast. Read the full review.