In Japan, when 5pm rolls around, you don’t go to the pub – you head for an izakaya. These laidback drinking dens combine the merriment of a pub with tapas-style small plates. Menus are a far cry from clean-lined platters of raw fish; for an izakaya, the adjectives ‘sticky’, ‘crispy’ and ‘grilled’ come to mind.
London isn’t exactly shy of food trends, and especially not when said trend involves beers and shared small plates. So, it’s no surprise that a flurry of izakaya-identifying restaurants have cropped up in the British capital. Here are seven you should know about.
The Aubrey London, Knightsbridge
Mandarin Oriental Hotel, 66 Knightsbridge, SW1X 7LA
London’s newest izakaya whisked aside its red velvet curtain in 2022, revealing a vestibular velvet den punctuated with Japanese techno. The sumptuous interior is Japonisme-inspired, with painted herons, fringed scarlet lamps and striking ornaments. There’s a pair of marble bars where you can watch nimble-fingered bartenders shake up sake-heavy cocktails.
Food-wise, skip the bone marrow fried rice. Instead, load your table with blushing Iberico pork, which is salty, tender and best when dunked in the accompanying chili paste. Other highlights include nigiri topped with nose-tickling wasabi, teeth-tickling ants (no, really) and a cloud of miso soufflé.
Drink: the umami-heavy Salome. It’s a savory, moreish martini made with sake and tomato liqueur.
Eat: the charcoal karaage chicken. Despite its black appearance, it’s surprisingly light and tender – and the yuzu mayo it’s served with? Heavenly.
May Fair Kitchen, Mayfair
Stratton St, W1J 8LT
To call this an izakaya is to stretch the definition to the limit. It’s an elegant, incense-filled restaurant where the service is as slick as the design – and that’s saying something, given the artful use of marble and subtle Japanese detailing.
The menu is a 50/50 split between Japanese and Italian dishes, but the former is where May Fair Kitchen excels. Think delicate slithers of yuzu-doused yellowtail, wispy filo prawns and a heavily caffeinated tiramisu topped with a dusting of matcha. All are served as they’re ready, izakaya-style.
Drink: the arancia piccante margarita. It’s a spicy yet sweet take on a margarita, topped with honeycomb handcrafted in the mixology lab downstairs.
Eat: the wagyu gyoza tacos. The gyoza wrappers have been fried until they’re so crispy, they fall apart the second you bite into them. We’ll take two, please.
Evernight, Nine Elms
Unit 1A, 3 Ravine Way Embassy Gardens, SW11 7BH
Nine Elms is on the up, and this sleek new izakaya provides yet another reason to investigate the food scene in this burgeoning neighborhood. The well-dressed space feels moodily modern, with lots of dark tones and a few pinstripe details. The menu uses almost exclusively British ‘micro-seasonal’ produce, with all dishes being small and shareable, as per typical izakaya style.
The classics – karaage, gyoza, sashimi and tempura – are included, as well as oysters, caviar and unique culinary innovations. Speaking of which, try the chicken meatball topped with a cured egg yolk.
Drink: there are only two cocktails on offer here, so you might as well try them both – a sakura negroni and a yuzu highball.
Eat: the mallard gyoza with sloe berry ponzu, a perfectly oxymoronic combination of crisp, squishy and tangy – order several.
36 Charlotte Rd, EC2A 3PG
Only in East London could a restaurant get away with describing itself as “a Tokyo-inspired tavern with Shoreditch energy”. The energy, by the way, is a plant-filled, ex-pub with globular hanging lights and DJs on the weekend. There’s a deluxe menu that includes ‘dragon rolls’, Cornish crab rolls and an attractive-looking yuzu cheesecake on the pudding menu, too.
Drink: skip the local brewers (sorry, Camden Hells) and opt for a slow-aged, Japanese amber beer flavored with sweet potato.
Eat: match your plate to your pint by going for robata-grilled sweet potato skewers; they arrive drizzled in tofu sauce and topped with dry-fried spring onions.
19 Motcomb Street, SW1X 8LB
This tiny bar is the smallest space in Belgravia’s giant Nordic-Japanese playground, also known as Pantechnicon. Sakaya, meaning bottle shop in Japanese, has floor-to-ceiling shelves heaving with various whiskeys and sakes. But there’s also space for four people to sample its products at a dinky wooden bar.
The intimacy of the space means that service from the sommelier is pretty much personal. You’ll leave knowing more about sake than you thought possible – as well as with a bottle of your favorite.
Drink: the fruity-yet-creamy White Blossom, enlivened with a shot of sake.
Eat: food is of the bar snack variety (hello, lotus crisps). So if you’re hungry, you’re better off booking a private booth in their subterranean sister restaurant, Sachi, for truly sublime sushi.
8 at the Londoner, Leicester Square
38 Leicester Square, WC2H 7DX
Although any place that claims to ‘reimagine tradition’ sets off the cliché detector, this eighth-floor drinking den manages to pull it off. A far cry from the folded plastic chairs you’d expect from a backstreet Tokyo izakaya, find this slick bar on the eighth floor of five-star hotel The Londoner.
It features monochromatic sofas and a sculptural rope installation suspended over a fire pit. Absent, too, is an izakaya’s typical fried fare; instead, you can expect a focus on seafood and wagyu and a martini-heavy cocktail menu.
Drink: an Espresso Goma. Essentially the Japanese cousin of an espresso martini, this delicate drink comes complete with amari seaweed and sugar sesame.
Eat: start with freshly cut sea bass carpaccio (it comes topped with Fuji apple) followed by lobster gyoza tacos, which are punched through with chili and cilantro.
4 Blenheim Street, W1S 1LB
You need a crash course in Japanese before we tell you why Cubé is one of our favorite izakaya. In Japanese, cubé means to pamper. The other word you’ll need to familiarize yourself with, omakase, which means ‘entrust’.
Put them both together, and it sums up the offering at Cubé: ten courses of chef-chosen, fresh sushi to pamper any guest. Of course, in the spirit of izakaya, there are also other small plates on offer. The interior is slick and simple with walls, tables and bars all made from wood.
Drink: head downstairs to the owner’s cellar for an incredible selection of wines and sakes; we’re eyeing up the sparkling sake.
Eat: if you don’t have time for the full omakase treatment, order a selection of small plates à la izakaya, including spicy octopus with cucumber and creamy crab meat croquettes.