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An image of sushi and chopsticks from SF's KUSAKABE restaurant.
Photograph: KUSAKABE

The best Japanese restaurants in San Francisco

Eat your way through flawless sushi, ramen, and teppanyaki at the best Japanese restaurants in San Francisco

Written by
Clara Hogan
Contributor
Lauren Sheber
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The last time we checked, the Bay Area is a ten-hour flight from Japan—but you wouldn’t know it based on the volume of ice-packed chests arriving daily from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market. The fact is, the best Japanese restaurants in San Francisco are the real deal, and they work with some of the best flavors and ingredients around.

In the last five years, dozens of master chefs, trained at acclaimed Japanese restaurants around the country, have opened fresh, new restaurants in the Bay Area, including a new wave of yakitori restaurants that specialize in grilling each piece of the chicken to perfection on a master grill. And of course, the best sushi and ramen in San Francisco are legion as they are legendary.

Around here, Japanese restaurants run the gamut from tiny, dozen-seaters to expansive modern eateries. Whether your ideal meal is super-fresh, simply prepared nigiri or wildly inventive omakase, the best Japanese restaurants in San Francisco offer up plenty of variety for every taste—here’s where to find them all.

RECOMMENDED: The best restaurants in San Francisco

Best Japanese restaurants in San Francisco, ranked

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Restaurants
  • Japanese
  • Union Square
  • price 2 of 4

A downtown standby for over 30 years, this family-owned restaurant specializes in rare fish that’s creatively and expertly prepared. The space is moody and modern with exposed brick walls, slatted wood ceilings, and imported rosewood floors underfoot. Ray Lee took over the restaurant from his parents in 2011, introducing a slew of new dishes alongside chef Naoyuki Hashimoto. The menu is divided into leaner white fish and fatty “vibrant” fish—diners are encouraged to pace their meal accordingly. The fish can be ordered as nigiri, sashimi, or sushi, but the optimal approach is to order the omakase. Akiko’s seasonal nama menu changes daily, sourced domestically (from Alaska to Boston) and from Tsukiji Market. On a given night, the menu might include delicacies like madai (wild black sea bream), aodai (blue fusilier), or kinki (thorny head), interspersed with sea urchin, shrimp, or awabi (Japanese black abalone). There are over 30 sakes on the menu—get ready to make some choices.

A batch of Yakitori joints popped up across San Francisco in recent years, and you can't do better than Hina Yakitori. In this cozy yet elegant space, Chef Tommy Cleary serves up an omakase-style yakitori feast—each cut of chicken is butchered and grilled carefully over a custom Japanese grill. Clearly stands over the grill in the middle of a space, surrounded by just 13 bar seats, as diners watch him in action.

Each night for $139, the restaurant offers a 13-course yakitori tasting menu that includes yakitori, sashimi, seasonal dishes, and dessert. They also offer bento boxes and a yagenbori chicken sandwich (a Japanese twist on a hot Nashville-style version). Trust us, once you've tried it, you'll be craving this sandwich regularly.

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  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Restaurants
  • Japanese
  • Hayes Valley
  • price 4 of 4

This hip newcomer serves contemporary, local omakase in a bright, chic setting—from the fuchsia and rose mosaic tiles behind the bar to the camel-hued leather seats and watercolor blue wallpaper. Chef-owner Adam Tortosa trained under Katsuya Uechi in Los Angeles and previously worked at Akiko’s. The seasonal omakase-style menu progresses from lean to fatty fish; expect standouts like starry flounder served with Meyer lemon, shiso, and blood-orange kosho and a bluefin shoulder marinated in poblano soy. The fish is interspersed with more hearty dishes like hand-pulled noodles (covered in shaved black truffles and Japanese chimichurri) as well as milk bread toast (topped with uni, uni butter, smoked maple-soy, and citrus).

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Restaurants
  • Japanese
  • Inner Sunset
  • price 2 of 4

Family is everything at this 30-year-old Sunset restaurant—it's owned by Steve and Koio Fujii along with their sons, Eric and Charlie. The menu spans sashimi, nigiri, sushi, kushiyaki, larger rice dishes, and rolls. The specialty rolls are certainly special, made with exciting ingredients like sake-pickled salmon, freshwater eel, and burdock root. Start with a smattering of the kushiyaki, $4 a la carte bites like Kobe beef or obi (shrimp with lemon), then follow up with sashimi picks like the bonito tatami: seared skipjack with onions, tobiko, and ponzu.

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  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Restaurants
  • Japanese
  • Jackson Square
  • price 4 of 4

This upscale restaurant serves omakase (chef’s choice) only: $98 for 7 courses or $165 for 10. The experience is akin to a ritual, reverently served at a wooden 17-seat sushi counter that was cut from a single tree (although there are also tables that accommodate another dozen guests). The omakase moves from lighter bites to heavier dishes, like a rich slice of Toro bluefin fatty tuna belly or A5 Wagyu beef. Garnishes bring out the unique flavor of each fish, whether served raw, roasted, fried, or steamed. Chef Mitsunori Kusakabe comes with a pedigree, having worked at Sushi Ran in Sausalito, as well as Nobu in Tokyo, New York, and Miami Beach.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Restaurants
  • Japanese
  • NoPa
  • price 4 of 4

Chef Geoffrey Lee earned his stripes at Sushi Ran and Akiko’s before opening this intimate, 12-seat omakase bar. (The name translates to “twelve” in Japanese.) The expert training paid off—this spot earned a Michelin star in 2017. Three sushi chefs toil over a dozen diners, meticulously preparing each bite. The omakase menu spans 18 eye-opening courses, from sake-cured albacore to golden eye snapper flecked with kelp salt. The fish, which is all flown from Tsukiji Market, might be garnished with anything from citrus to miso butter, or even yuzu-tinged hot sauce.

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  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Restaurants
  • Japanese
  • Inner Sunset
  • price 2 of 4

This izakaya specializes in yakitori and small plates year-round, but winter draws crowds for its Tonkotsu ramen. The atmosphere is warm and inviting with vibrant red walls and wrap-around windows facing Irving Street. Start with the nasa dengaku, a grilled eggplant slathered in sweet miso and sprinkled with bonito flakes. The melt-in-your-mouth carpaccio is another specialty; depending on the freshest fish of the day, it might be made with hamachi or albacore. And the bacon-wrapped mochi is, unsurprisingly, delicious (and social-media-famous). The generous sake list features unmai, ginjo, daiginjo, and honjozo varieties.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Restaurants
  • Japanese
  • Lower Nob Hill
  • price 2 of 4

Ryoko’s is the antidote to self-serious sushi bars—the perpetually slammed 30-year-old mainstay is boozy, clubby, and totally casual (seriously, a DJ starts spinning at 9pm). And while the scene is lit, the food is spot-on: seafood is fresh and the preparation is distinctive with a wide array of specialty rolls (the Dragon incorporates crab, barbecue eel, and flying fish roe) and flavorful rice that’s cooked with vinegar made in-house. The seafood is delivered fresh daily and the menu spans small plates, sushi, and sashimi. (Start with the tuna yukka, flavored with a spicy sesame oil, garlic, ginger, and sea salt.) In keeping with the raucous vibe, most diners order Japanese beer while they wait, whether that’s Asahi, Kirin, or Ryoko’s very own pilsner.

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