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Follow these expert tips to create a Japanese izakaya (a casual pub-like eatery) in the comfort of your own home.

By Taylor Tobin
March 04, 2021
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One of the most beloved and popular ways to socialize in Japanese towns and cities involves a visit to a local izakaya. These comfortable, casual venues, often compared to British pubs and Spanish tapas bars, are specifically designed for fun and relaxing gatherings fueled by cold brews, refreshing cocktails, and flavorful (and shareable) platters of snacks.

The pandemic may have hampered our ability to visit an authentic izakaya in person, but it's very possible to recreate the laid-back, convivial vibes (and the satisfying bites) in the comfort of your own home. Follow these four expert tips from seasoned izakaya chefs, and you'll be ready to throw a delicious get-together that your quarantine pod won't soon forget.

izakaya and street scene in japan
Credit: Takashi Aoyami/Stringer, Getty Images News

Have fun with your drink selections.

The appeal of the izakaya rests on the fact that it never takes itself too seriously. In terms of beverages, you'll find local beer and sake, affordable wines, and uncomplicated (but very tasty) cocktails. There's no "right" way to pair drinks with izakaya dishes, as explained by Chef Jeff Osaka of Sushi-Rama and Osaka Ramen in Denver, Colorado: "Ultimately, izakaya is all about creating fun, memorable and delicious snacks, so take liberties with pairings — beer or sake, even Japanese whiskey. Wine is not out of the question either!"

If you'd like to offer beers alongside your izakaya dishes, don't hesitate to experiment with different styles and flavor profiles. "For beers, it helps to have a variety of types of beer – IPA, cider, pale ale – to enjoy with different flavor profiles of the appetizers," advises owner Isamu "Sam" Morikizono of Tajima in San Diego, California.

As far as cocktails go, executive chef Manabu "Hori" Horiuchi of Kata Robata in Houston, Texas has one clear recommendation: "Highballs are very popular in Japan." A highball is a mixed drink that combines a spirit with a non-alcoholic, typically carbonated beverage, like a scotch and soda or a rum and cola. "So definitely serve highballs made with Japanese whisky or shochu. Both pair with izakaya-style foods perfectly. In my opinion, Suntory Toki is the perfect Japanese whisky for a highball."

Many izakayas offer both cold beverages and warm beverages to accompany their dishes, and head chef and recipe developer Jessica Randhawa of The Forked Spoon strongly suggests giving something warm a try. "One way to accomplish that izakaya experience is by growing your warm beverages collection. Whether it be a warm, comforting Junmai Ginjo-shu sake or an heirloom uron-cha (oolong tea), warm beverages are a great way to recreate a comfortable izakaya experience safely in one's own home," Randhawa tells us.

pouring sake into white cups
Sharing Japanese sake
| Credit: Meredith

For a truly authentic touch, serve your spread on Japanese stoneware.

Because izakaya isn't a formal style of dining, you can take plenty of liberties where dishware and servingware are concerned. That said, Osaka recommends that, "to impress your guests, use a variety of Japanese stoneware plates, bowls, and cups to help create the mood and authenticity of the meal. You can usually find them at your nearest local Asian Market."

Assuming that you're sharing your izakaya eats with people living in your own household or members of your quarantine pod, you can engage in the traditional izakaya practice of putting snacks on large share plates. "'Izakayas are fun and casual, so the plateware should reflect that. I love using really big plates for yakitori — 5 skewers on a plate. It looks really beautiful, and everyone can eat family-style around the table," says Horiuchi.

When in doubt, break out a charcoal grill.

If you're really committed to keeping your menu as simple as possible, then you'll need just one cooking appliance to get the job done: your charcoal grill. With a grill at the ready, you can whip up yakitori, which count among the most popular (and versatile) izakaya dishes. "If you have access to a charcoal grill, they're the best for skewers—chicken, beef, salmon. I really love chicken skin skewers, which are really popular in Japan. If you don't have a charcoal grill, any grill will work. Yuzu kosho is perfect for adding a little spice to any dish—I always add it to my skewers. You can find it at any Asian grocery store," Horiuchi insists.

See how to make Easy Chicken Yakitori:

Izakaya-style dining is all about comfort food.

When planning your izakaya menu, be sure to remember that izakaya relies on comfort food. The number of shareable plates depends on your group's appetite, but Chef Sergio Rivera of Azabu Miami Beach advises that "you could do something simple with 3-4 dishes."

In addition to yakitori, common izakaya plates include tamagoyaki (a rolled egg omelette), okonomiyaki (a thin, crepe-like pancake topped with vegetables and proteins), Japanese fried chicken, gyoza (dumplings filled with pork, seafood, or vegetables), and edamame (blanched and seasoned soybeans). Izakayas typically serve sushi and sashimi, but those items aren't the focus of the menus. In some cases, izakaya spreads will involve a larger entree-style course to be shared among the group, like noodle dishes or gyudon (rice bowls topped with protein).

For more classic recipes, check out our favorite Japanese Izakaya recipes.

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