Tokyo restaurant etiquette: the ultimate guide to dining in Japan’s capital
Want to take a deep dive into Tokyo’s famous (and famously amazing) dining scene, but worried about committing some unforgivable gaffe? Here's all you need to know to eat like a local. Hint: it’s not as hard as you might have feared. In fact, once you nail the logic of eating in Tokyo, it all makes a lot of sense.
Tokyo restaurants are small
Really small. This is the most important thing you need to know about dining out in the city. A restaurant might literally have only 12 stools at the counter, and maybe two tables that can each seat up to four. And this set-up is not at all unusual. Many Tokyo dining etiquette conventions stem from the specific requirements of keeping such small enterprises afloat. The dining scene is also highly competitive. For that reason, most restaurants are run on extremely tight margins.
Restaurants are terrified of no shows
If you have in mind the image of a chef-run restaurant with seating for 20, you can imagine the impact that a party of four skipping out on their reservation would have on the restaurant's haul for the night. Especially if the chef made a special trip to the market that morning just to buy ingredients for your meal.
Unfortunately, there is a widespread belief among Tokyo restaurants that overseas guests are more likely to flake on reservations than local diners. There may be some truth to this: after all, it can be stressful to ring up a restaurant where no English is spoken (and out-of-towners don't have to worry about never being able to show their faces there again).
More likely it’s a case of a few examples blown out of proportion. But every no-show amplifies the echo chamber and makes it harder for overseas visitors to get reservations. There are now a handful of restaurants that will only accept reservations from foreign travellers through the intermediary of a hotel concierge; others require you to give a local phone number.
If you just can’t make it, please find a way to communicate that to the restaurant, ideally the day before (your accommodation can usually help with this). Note that no-shows are sometimes expected to pay a cancellation fee, which may be as much as the cost of a whole meal.
Do I even need to make a reservation?
Good question! The short answer: generally, no. Many casual places don't even take reservations, with popular places enjoying the free advertising that a long line out front creates. For these places, your strategy should be to show up outside of peak meal times, which is roughly 11.30am to 1pm and 6pm to 7.30pm, but not in the middle of the afternoon (when restaurants are often closed).
Now the exceptions: for any restaurant that counts as a destination in and of itself, at which you have your heart set on eating, absolutely make a reservation (if the restaurant takes them). High-end places expect you to make a reservation, though they will graciously accept walk-ins if they have the space and ingredients. This is also an opportunity to discuss any dietary restrictions (high-end places are the most flexible with regards to this).
Tokyoites tend to make reservations for pretty much any planned meet-up at any restaurant that falls in or above the broad mid-range category. That doesn't mean you have to, though it may mean you don’t get a table at your top choice. Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest, but Tokyoites are out all nights of the week.
It really comes down to which you prefer: being locked into a fixed dining schedule but getting to eat where you want, or having to work it all out on the fly. If you’re flexible and up for spontaneous decisions, going reservation-free is totally fine – as long as you’re not a large group.
Party size matters
It is usually easy for a restaurant to find seating for two, trickier for a group of four (you’ll have to wait until a table opens up) and significantly more challenging for groups larger than four. In fact, some restaurants require parties of five or more to call ahead. At quick and casual joints, like noodle counters, consider breaking your group into pairs to move things along faster (which will make the restaurant happier).
The good news for solo travellers is that Tokyo is a city that embraces the lone diner, where everyone at the counter will squish together to make room for you. Servers may even offer you a coveted table, if one is available, so that you can eat and read your book in peace with dignity – just don’t stay too long.
Be mindful of the time
Second to no-shows, restaurants’ biggest concern is adequate turnover. This is especially true at lunch. It’s no secret that lunch is Tokyo’s great bargain, but restaurants can only offer such great bargains because they anticipate a high turnover. And Tokyo is not a city with a long lunch break culture.
Restaurants get grumpy if you hold onto a table too long, sipping tea without ordering anything more. Lingering at noodle counters is also a big no-no. Tokyoites know that if they want to carry on chatting they should move on to a nearby cafe. And, yes, Tokyo’s thousand-odd cafes seem to defy all logic (we don't understand how they stay in business either).
Read the room
The truth is, restaurants aren’t as fussed by the normal tourist gaffes as you might think. Sure, the chef might secretly die a little inside if you pour soy sauce over an already-seasoned dish – the same way chefs in other parts of the world might do if you salt your food before you taste it. There are only two things you can do that are likely to freak people out, and that is to stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice or to pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another. Both are similar to Buddhist funeral rites.
Tokyo does have a handful of famously fastidious chefs but they are most definitely a minority. Far more would rather you enjoyed the food than worry about the proper order in which to eat it. Pro tip: a compliment, like 'oishii desu!' ('this is delicious!') can make up for pretty much anything.
Really, to avoid embarrassment, you just need to do what the Japanese do: read the room. Each restaurant has its own culture set by its owner and the regular customers it attracts. At some you have to scream to be heard over the din; others are hushed, sober affairs. Any Tokyoite who enters a restaurant for the first time would do a quick mental sweep of the place and adjust accordingly.
Don’t knock the chains
If all of the above sounds like a giant hassle, know that many locals share that opinion. That's why there are plenty of chain restaurants staffed by part-timers who aren't bothered if you don't show up, order too little, overstay or leave puddles of soy sauce all over the table. Chain restaurants are usually big and can more easily accommodate larger groups. They're also more likely to have English menus, distinct smoking and non-smoking areas and children’s meals. They're cheap and usually pretty good.