Best Japanese restaurants
A downtown standby for over 30 years, this family-owned restaurant specializes in rare fish, creatively 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 (while black sea bream), aodai (blue fusilier), or kinki (thorny head), interspersed with sea urchin, shrimp, or awabi—Japanese black abalone. Choose from a selection of over 30 sakes.
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; guests can 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 and a milk bread toast topped with uni, uni butter, smoked maple-soy, and citrus.
The fish is taken seriously at this decade-old Mission sushi bar, but the ambiance is unintimidating and fun, from the pop art mural to the greeting shouted by staff when you enter. After expanding to a larger location up the street in 2014, executive chef Tim Archuleta and his partner, Erin Archuleta, went back to their roots, reopening in their original 21-seat Mission Street location in early 2017. Tim trained in Japantown before honing his skills at Ace Wasabi and Tokyo Go Go. The fish selection changes daily—look for specials like Japanese golden eye snapper. While the menu emphasizes nigiri, omakase service is available. The fish is deftly complemented by a variety of citrus, salts, and house-made ponzu in flavors like garlic ginger and yuzu. Trust us, you won’t miss the soy sauce.
Tetsuro Ozawa opened this this tiny, nine-seat Japantown restaurant in 2016. The $100 kaiseki menu—the only service of its kind in the city—lives up to the hype. Dishes change frequently, as Ozawa stages the menu according to the freshest daily fish. The meal follows a carefully considered progression, starting with sakizuke (small appetizer), followed by hassan (a seasonal appetizer) soup, mukouzuke (sashimi), yakimono (a grilled dish), sunomono (a vinegared dish), osyokuji (rice, miso soup, and pickles), and, finally, dessert. The preparations are surprising and inventive, from the barracuda sushi to the sweet tomato soaked in wine and brandy.
This 30-year-old Sunset restaurant is 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. Specialty rolls come in unusual combinations, incorporating 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.
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 the 17-seat sushi counter, which was cut from a single tree. (Tables accommodate another dozen guests.) The omakase moves from lighter bites to heavier dishes, like a rich slice Toro bluefin fatty tuna belly or A5 Wagyu beef. The preparation and discerning 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.
Roku nails the feel—and food—of an authentic izakaya. Nightly menu additions, written in Japanese characters, are taped to the walls alongside pin-up style Japanese advertisements, and J-pop blares overhead. The spot is known for its Japanese tapas-style small plates—heavy on skewers and a range of bite-sized fried snacks that pair well beer and sake—as well as its ramen. Of the three ramen options, the spicy red version is your best bet.
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—the 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 citrus, miso butter, or yuzu-tinged hot sauce.
This izakaya specializes in yakitori and small plates—though in the winter, crowds throng for the Tonkotsu ramen. The atmosphere is warm and inviting, with vibrant red walls and wrap-around windows facing Irving Street. Start with the nasa dengaku, grilled eggplant slathered in sweet miso and sprinkled with bonita flakes. The melt-in-your-mouth carpaccio is another specialty. Depending on the freshest fish of the day, that might be a hamachi or albacore. And the bacon-wrapped mocha is, unsurprisingly, delicious (and social-media-famous). The generous sake list features unmai, ginjo, daiginjo, and honjozo varieties.
Ryoko’s is the antidote to self-serious, precious sushi bars. The perpetually slammed 30-year-old mainstay is boozy and clubby. (Seriously—a DJ starts spinning at 9pm.) But the seafood is fresh and the preparation is distinctive, from the wide array of specialty rolls (the Dragon incorporates crab, barbecue eel, and flying fish roe) to the flavorful rice, 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 Asahi, Kirin, and Ryoko’s own pilsner.