What Exactly Is an Izakaya? An Interview with Umamimart's Yoko Kumano

Categories: 'Eat' Extra
An izakaya in Tokyo.
The more restaurants calling themselves "izakaya" that I eat at in the Bay Area, the more I'm convinced that the title simply indicates a new style of American Japanese neighborhood restaurant. That's no diss, mind you, and I'm delighted with the creativity that these new chefs are showing. That said, from Izakaya Sozai to Ippuku to Chotto and Kasumi ― the subject of this week's review ―  I'm encountering many of the same types of dishes, served in an atmosphere that resembles a bistro more than a bar. To get a little clarity, I called Yoko Kumano, cofounder of Umamimart. Kumano lives in Berkeley but spent four years in Tokyo.

SFoodie: So it seems half of the Japanese restaurants opening these days are calling themselves "izakaya," but I get the feeling that izakaya in Japan are something different. What, in Japan, does "izakaya" signify?

Kumano: It's a place to relax and a place to drink. Over here, the focus seems to be what you're eating. But in Japan, you go to an izakaya to talk about business or unwind. You see a lot of younger people there, people getting off work, who go there regularly. It's a place to be unruly and wild, and the price reflects that. It's like a pub in that way. In the States, the izakayas are expensive compared to what we have in Japan ― the function is completely different.

What kinds of foods do izakaya serve?

It's usually pretty cheap ― little fish, grilled things, little veggies, prepared foods like goma-ae or potato salad. The focus, again, is that you're drinking and you have these snacks that you can pick at and eat. A lot of the izakaya dishes here are hearty in comparison.

Hearty in terms of portion size or the food itself?

There are so many types of izakaya in Japan, but definitely not food like tataki or something indulgent. A lot of times, an izakaya will be run by a couple. The food is dishes the wife prepares while the guy will cut some sashimi.

Are there any izakaya here that resemble the ones in Japan?

I haven't been to so many, but I would say that Ippuku is close in terms of the food. But pricewise, Ippuku is expensive. And because it's expensive, you get a different clientele from what you would expect in Japan ― rowdy young people.

Is there another type of restaurant in Japan that would describe California izakaya? For instance, the kappou of Kappou Gomi.

[Consults husband] My husband, who's Japanese, says that a kappou is one step above izakaya. There's also another type of restaurant called a sousaku, which means "creative." They have lots of small, creative dishes, what we might call fusion cooking.

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Izakaya in the U.S. means "take gaijin money, serve them crap, tell them "popular in Shibuya""

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