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Izakaya by Tamura

  • Restaurants
  • Fitzroy
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
  1. A table filled with bowls of Japanese food.
    Photograph: Tim Harris
  2. A bartender pours a cocktail into a glass through a strainer.
    Photograph: Tim Harris
  3. Two cocktails side-by-side on a bar.
    Photograph: Tim Harris

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

A new Japanese-inspired pub brings neo izakaya eats, signature drinks and moody late-night vibes to Smith Street

If the name ‘Tamura’ sounds familiar, it’s because this new izakaya is the culinary brainchild of Fumi and Takako Tamura, the same owners behind Fitzroy favourite Tamura Sake Bar. With more space to create a sprawling pub offering in their recently acquired heritage bluestone digs, the duo’s second project is a nod to the izakayas they remember (and dearly miss) from back in Japan. 

We head in around 8pm on a Friday night to find the crowd leaning younger and the atmosphere both happening and super chilled-out, all at the same time. Smooth jazz music plays softly in the background, and though we’ve booked a table in advance online, the host seems a little confused when I mention it. This is the sort of place where most people just wander in and out on a whim, so perhaps reservations are rare. While wooden tables on the ground floor add an authentic izakaya feel to the establishment, the interior renovators haven’t ditched the OG brick and bluestone walls. It’s easy to nestle into the moody den, the darkness feeling cosy and casual rather than oppressive. 

Staff members are relaxed, yet pleasant and attentive enough. A hybrid of half table, half bar service, you can either go up to the bar for a drink or wait for someone to come to you. Our neighbours huddled together at a large bench are chattering away in Japanese, which of course, is a great sign for things to come. We can’t go without a Suntory Highball, that classic old-school cocktail of whisky and soda water served with ice. It’s bright, refreshing and familiar, going down as easily as a glass of lemonade. Something less familiar, however, is the Tamulager – a bespoke collaboration with local brewers Stomping Ground. It’s a rice lager made from New Zealand hops, designed to pair wonderfully with Japanese food. 

When two shiny morsels of saba (mackerel) nigiri come out, I put its chemistry to the test. It’s indeed electric. The fresh plump fish sings underneath its crowning savoury trio of ginger, soy and spring onion, atop a sticky mound that constitutes some of the better sushi rice in Melbourne available at this price point. A swig of the lager in between bites only leaves your tongue wanting more, a nip of wasabi served with the fish adding a welcome buzz. Though maguro (tuna) and anago (sea eel) on the menu also catch my eye, we’re here to try more than just sushi so I file it away in the memory bank for next time.

We decide on the miso eggplant next, which arrives shiny and glazed under a mysterious shower of punchy miso powder. It’s been flash-fried with the texture still stringy enough to sense between your teeth, and though not as creamy-soft as some may like, it’s another undeniably fantastic beer complement. 

En route to a restroom upstairs, I marvel at the potential of the upper-storey space. There are decks for a DJ, an impressive custom sound system and plush vintage chairs with room for about 100. Why is it empty on a Friday night? Not sure, but it’s clear that a party up here would be pumping. We find out later that you need to check the venue’s Instagram to find out who’s lined up and when.

Back at our seats, the snacks continue to race out of the kitchen hot and fast. We sink our teeth into juicy and charcoal-smoked yakitori chicken thigh skewers, arguably on par with those you’d taste at a neighbourhood izakaya in Osaka. The tempura vegetables take it to the next level: crunchy clouds of fluffy tofu and greens encased in a lightly seasoned batter. The fried onion almost looks like an octopus (brief cause for panic for my partner who can’t eat seafood), but alas the tendrils are not tentacles and are instead artistically cut slices of onion that burst in the mouth like sugar crystals when you bite into them. It’s a sensational plate of tempura, each moreish bite rendered juicier when dipped into the bowl of sweet soy sauce served on the side. A crisp and malty Orion lager strips clean all the savouriness nicely. 

The sole main we share for the night is a plate of okonomi yakisoba. It’s exactly what you’d expect it to be from the name, a rich, sauce-drizzled okonomiyaki pancake cushioned against a portion of bouncy warm soba noodles. The pancake is creamy and sweet from the well-cooked cabbage and mayo on top, crisp around the edges and masterfully restrained on the extra salt front. A standout dish packed with carby and fatty goodness, we devour it in minutes flat.

If you’re a fan of fuss-free Japanese food, there’s a lot to love about this place. All the crowd favourites feature on the menu, such as gyoza dumplings, chicken katsu curry, edamame, sashimi and more. But it’s refreshing to see some rarer eats at Izakaya by Tamura, too, such as scallops with konbu butter and shibazuke pickles, eel and cream cheese sushi rolls and stewed beef tendon. 

What the Tamuras are offering up here is far too precious and fun not to return. We’d love to explore more of the upstairs energy when something’s on, try the full range of snacks with friends and venture a little deeper into the signature cocktail list on our next encounter. 

Fried food and beer have always been a match made in heaven, but at Izakaya by Tamura, you really get the sense that the Japanese do it best. 

Craving more sushi, sashimi and tempura? Check out the best Japanese restaurants in Melbourne.

Lauren Dinse
Written by
Lauren Dinse


343 Smith St
Opening hours:
Mon & Thurs from 5pm; Fri-Sun from 12pm
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