The best bars in Tokyo
The SG Club knows how to have fun with cocktails while still maintaining the level of professionalism that has come to exemplify Tokyo's cocktail scene. A jetsetter and frequent award-winner, founder-bartender Shingo Gokan has recently added a couple more trophies to his mantle: he was awarded the 'Altos Bartenders' Bartender' title at the 2019 Asia's 50 Best Bars while The SG Club came in at No. 13 on the list.
The bar is spread out over two floors, each with a different concept and menu. The ground floor space, named Guzzle, is a casual watering hole. The basement, on the other hand, is named Sip, a sophisticated den with the vibes of a speakeasy and a shoe-shine service. The elaborate drink menu is as eclectic as The SG Club's clientele, often blending influences and ingredients from both Japan and abroad to great results. The best part is, there's an English menu and there's no table/cover charge for Guzzle (Sip, however, adds on a service charge).
Seasonal cocktails are the speciality at Ishinohana, Shibuya's answer to the high-end cocktail bars of Ginza. At a basement location just a minute's walk from Shibuya Station, owner Shinobu Ishigaki wields an array of fresh fruit and vegetables when creating his distinctive drinks: a gin and tonic is enlivened with kumquat, a margherita gets an injection of housemade cassis confiture.
There are entire menus devoted just to mojitos and martinis, plus a sizeable list of originals including Ishigaki's award-winning Claudia (martini with pineapple juice and caramel syrup) and Polar Star (aquavit, apple syrup and lemon juice). The quality is generally very high indeed, and first-time visitors should find the atmosphere considerably less intimidating than at Ginza's bartending temples.
Great bartenders are like modern-day alchemists – and this analogy is especially true for Hiroyasu Kayama of Bar Benfiddich, who’s famed for creating spirits, liqueurs and cocktails from scratch, using herbs, spices, roots, fruits and plants harvested from his family farm. As such, there’s no menu; state your preferred base (whisky, gin, absinthe…) and taste, and Kayama will concoct your drink off-the-cuff, often using a pestle and mortar to mash up the botanicals as much as a conventional shaker.
Easily accessible on the 13th floor of Ginza Six, Mixology Salon looks more like a modern tea bar than an alcoholic one – and there’s a good reason for that. Specialising in what they call ‘teatails’, Mixology Salon’s signature cocktails are all made with its house blend of tea-infused spirits. You’ll find a wide range here, from hojicha-infused bourbon and soba cha vodka to oolong tea-flavoured rum and sencha gin.
For first-timers, we recommend you go for a teatail course, where you can choose between three to five drinks made with a particular tea in mind. Otherwise, you can’t go wrong with the Green Tea Fashioned (¥1,700), a fresh take on the classic Old Fashioned. Got a sweet tooth? Order the Soba Cha cocktail (¥1,600), which is a mix of buckwheat tea-infused vodka and pineapple and finished with a surprising hint of miso. Note: ¥800 table charge applies per person.
Opened in 1989, this Tokyo institution is themed after the historic members-only Gaslight Bar in 1950s Chicago, which once counted Elizabeth Taylor as one of its many celebrity clients. While you’re unlikely to spot any Hollywood stars enjoying a nightcap in Kasumigaseki, this classy bar has a similarly discreet air and is known for featuring bartending greats such as Takao Mori.
Now nearing its 30th anniversary, this elegant bar is currently helmed by owner-bartender Noriyuki Iguchi, a big name in the local bar scene who won the 2007 National Bartender Skills Competition. Take a seat at the 20-foot long counter made from African teak and order Gaslight’s famous dry martini, which comes served in a Bohemia Crystal.
The beloved Old Imperial Bar is classic Tokyo: a genteel atmosphere, all decked out like a gentlemen’s club in dark wood and leather, presided over by a staff of immaculately dressed bartenders. It is the only place within the iconic Imperial Hotel which still retains art deco traces of its former 1923 building designed by the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
While the quality at most bars can be directly linked to the skills of an individual bartender, at Old Imperial Bar every mixologist is equally adept at creating an impeccable cocktail. For a drink that’s almost as storied as the bar, order the signature Mount Fuji, which has been on the menu since the early ’20s. It’s a perfectly balanced mix of gin, pineapple, lemon and egg white – and to match the bar’s old-world vibe – garnished with a glacé cherry.
Some of the city’s bartending greats once worked at this basement drinking den, such as Yuichi Hoshi, who has gone on to open eight outlets throughout Japan, and Fumiyasu Mimitsuka, who now has his own bar in Ginza. Meanwhile, Kazuma Matsuo, who still works at the bar today, is a famed bartender on the local circuit.
Although it’s been open for 25 years, Little Smith still pops up in conversions about the top bars in Ginza. You wouldn’t guess its age based on the contemporary interior design, which boasts an unusually high four-metre ceiling. The sleek island bar made of wood and wrapped around an imposing column remains a much-loved aspect of Little Smith. It is the work of the late renowned architect Takahiko Yanagisawa, who was also responsible for some of Tokyo’s most iconic landmarks such as the Yurakucho Mullion and the Opera City Tower.
Hisashi Kishi broke into the bartending spotlight back in 1996, when he took home the International Bar Association's world championship title at the age of 31. Now also an accomplished author and minor celebrity, he is one of Ginza's most impressive barmen, both in terms of physical appearance and technical skill. Kishi's kingdom is called Star Bar, a quiet basement spot on Namiki-dori, where everything – from the handcrafted ice cubes to the exclusive leather stools – exudes a desire for perfection.
This small watering hole, located off an alleyway just a few minutes' walk from Ebisu Station, stocks herbal liqueurs like Chartreuse and Picon as well as quality absinthe, appropriately served with a sugar cube and cold water. Their original cocktails are also well worth a shot – who could resist names like 'Corpse Reviver #2' or 'Monkey Gland'? Complete with a pseudo-aristocratic bartender and an interior that reeks of fin de siècle France, this has to be one of the most interesting bars in Tokyo.
If it's Japanese whisky you want, Zoetrope is the place to head. Tucked away on a back street in Nishi-Shinjuku, this intimate, dimly lit bar boasts a collection of bottles that's unrivalled anywhere else in the city: there are 300 varieties on offer, many of which are no longer even on the market. Whisky geeks will relish the chance to sample rare bottlings from the likes of Mercian and up-and-coming distillery Venture Whisky, while beginners can start with a sampler set of choice malts from big dogs Suntory and Nikka (or opt for some draft microbrew, courtesy of Osaka's Minoh Beer).
Owner Atsushi Horigami isn't just a whisky fan – he's also a massive cinema geek, and recruited the late Takeo Kimura – a legendary art director in the world of Japanese film – to do the bar's décor. Horigami likes to screen films during the evening, meaning you can watch an old silent comedy or vintage animation while sipping your malt.
A trifecta of rough stone, warm wood and faint light welcomes the thirsty to Hulotte – 'owl' in French – an Azabu watering hole that regularly appears in flashy bar features praising its unique atmosphere. But this is no trendy date spot – far from it. It's much better suited to lone imbibers, who are prepared to make the hike from Azabu-Juban Station for the chance to sit quietly, sample a fine cigar and sip on a cocktail mixed up by Hulotte's master bartender, a veteran of Aoyama's extraordinary Radio. There is a seat for two at the very end of the room, but you'd probably have to come here at least a dozen times before they let you use it...
As the name suggests, fresh, seasonal fruits form the basis for the cocktails at this classy bar near Ginza Station. Always innovating, the bartenders here are what you'd call open-minded traditionalists, drawing on a strictly limited array of mixology approaches to give their concoctions a little extra fizz. Look out for smoke rising from behind the bar, as they experiment with liquid nitrogen to create wild-looking but perfectly balanced 'frozen' cocktails. Their antics resemble an old-school magic show: not too flashy, a little mysterious, and always ending in a way that satisfies the viewer.
Hotel bars usually aren't very inspiring places, especially if you're not staying at the establishment in question. But the Tokyo Station Hotel's boozer sure isn't like most hotel bars: moved to its current location after a six-year renovation completed in 2012, it incorporates red bricks and wood in the décor and is manned by Hisashi Sugimoto, who's been with the hotel since 1958. 'The Master' mixes up his signature Tokyo Station cocktails from 5pm every day – best be there on time for the chance to grab a counter seat and watch Sugimoto work his magic up close.
A mixture of shochu, club soda and lemon juice, the humble lemon sour (the Japanese kind, not the cocktail base) isn't the kind of drink you would think merits a specialist bar. You'll change your mind, however, after a visit to The Open Book at Shinjuku's Golden Gai. Upon entering, your eyes are sure to fixate on the massive back wall, covered with books all the way to the ceiling.
Mr Tanaka, the owner, is actually a grandchild of the late Komimasa Tanaka, a Naoki Award-winning author and translator who is of course well represented in the Open Book library. The unique collection also includes tomes brought over by Komimasa For his signature sours, Tanaka uses a double-chamber Randall filter to bring out the zesty best in the lemons while mixing them with power-packed shochu and homemade lemon syrup, resulting in a harmony of sweet, sour and crisp.
The sister shop of Kyoto-based craft beer and sake bar Before 9, Another 8 opened in posh Meguro in a space that used to be a garage. It's a cool place for laidback drinking, and it tends to get very crowded on weekends, especially when there's a guest DJ playing.
Local craft beer is the speciality at Another 8; the place is equipped with eight taps and the selection changes frequently. However, there is also a small but well-curated selection of sake. The bar bites are pretty good too – we’re big fans of the marinated octopus and celery, while those looking for something more substantial will want to try the shirasu (whitebait) and daikon omelette.
Originating from Copenhagen, Denmark, Mikkeller Tokyo is set in a corner building in Shibuya’s love hotel-infested Hyakkendana. Offering a smallish but comfy stage for sipping both house brews and guest beers from Japan and beyond – there are 20 taps in total – it’s a wonderful addition to an offbeat neighbourhood where sex shops co-exist with stylish restaurants and even a Shinto shrine.
Partially opening up onto the street, the ground floor is where to enjoy a drink on your feet and always gets crowded once the sun goes down, while tables are found in the quiet space upstairs. Bringing a touch of Scandinavian flair to Shibuya, Mikkeller is the kind of place we’d like to stop by every night.
When the sun begins to set over Oku-Shibuya (‘inner Shibuya’), the trendy back streets of Tokyo’s buzziest neighbourhood, you might spot more than a few suit-wearing characters making their way towards this shrine to Norwegian craft beer. Øl Tokyo is the local outpost of Oslo Brewing and exudes Scandinavian style: the furniture and part of the décor was flown in straight from Norway. The 20 taps serve a range of Nordic brews plus a rotating selection of guest beers. Food trucks occasionally park in front of the bar to compensate for its very sparse food menu, although we love the house-made waffles, filled with goat’s cheese.
This Belgian beer pub is a copy of its original Brussels location, with a little bit of Japanese flavour thrown in for that local feel. The changing craft beer lineup ranges from ubiquitous Belgian beers to a few Belgian-Japanese collaborations – think a yuzu-infused weissbier for example, brewed in Kyoto with guidance from the Belgians. Prices are similar to those at other craft or import beer pubs in the area (from around ¥850 for a regular glass) and their food menu is worth a gander too. Most dishes go around the ¥1,000 mark and are somewhere between actual meals and elaborate, filling bar snacks.
Just down the road from the famed Shin Udon, this casual brewery/gastropub is a great place to wind down from the intensity of Shinjuku. The first floor brewery pub is where to go for a craft beer, or three: the changing line-up of beers includes house brews and domestic favourites such as Niigata's Swan Lake. If you want something to nibble on with your beer, head to the seventh floor 'beer kitchen', which serves the same line-up of craft beers alongside a Western-inspired food menu.
Considering the monocromatic, sleek décor, it's a surprise that YYG won't set you back that much: beers go for ¥800 to ¥1,000, most appetisers are around the ¥800 mark and mains are from ¥1,000, with generous portions to boot, too. Unlike many other craft beer joints in Tokyo, YYG has a full English menu as well.
Everybody's favourite secret wine bar in Shibuya, Ahiru Store's reputation has far outstripped the size of its premises. Located at the far end of Tomigaya (it's actually closer to Yoyogi-Koen Station than Shibuya), this corner bar is run by a sibling tag-team: he takes care of the wine list, she bakes the bread and oversees the food. Both are consistently interesting: sommelier Teruhiko Saito sticks to natural wines, predominantly French and many from little-known producers, with a rotating selection available by the glass from ¥800. Meanwhile, the kitchen serves up some superior bistro fare, running from sister Wakako's excellent rustic breads to generous salads to housemade sausages and pates. Portions are generous, and the food can be pretty imaginative, such as a wasabi-infused salad of chunky avocado and octopus. Good luck scoring a seat, though: Ahiru Store only takes reservations until 6.30pm at the latest, and it's not unusual to see hungry customers queueing patiently outside during the evening.
The entrance may not be that obvious if you're coming from Shibuya Station, but Sakestand is all the better for it. This narrow, standing-only bar hidden away on the second floor on a side street off Dogenzaka is a little gem for those looking to immerse themselves in the wonderful world of sake. They serve a changing lineup of sake from across the country, presented in wine glasses with a small tag attached that states all the info (including the name in English) you need to find it again.
Located on a quiet corner in Shibuya, Utsura Utsura has that type of enticing nighttime glow that just beckons you in. Through the wooden door you’ll find a bar counter that seats eight, running along the narrow open kitchen where you can watch the chef and sake sommelier at work. The latter is, uniquely, a hot sake specialist, and watching him warm up the drinks to their precise temperature can be rather hypnotic.
The concept of this gastrobar is to find the right sake to match the dish you’d like to eat, or vice versa. Sake comes by the glass, starting around ¥500, or 180ml carafes ranging from ¥700 to ¥1,500, with about 40 varieties of regularly changing labels on offer. The elaborate otoshi (quick bites, much like an appetiser) platter is a standout, with around six tiny seasonal dishes like strawberry with tofu and sesame cream, and duck steamed in soy sauce with poached kumquats.
Kengyo is part-bottle-shop, part-standing- bar, which stocks over 150 types of boutique sake from across Japan. It’s a bright, light- filled, welcoming space, with large windows overlooking Ginza’s backstreets. Sake can be bought by the 90ml glass from just ¥500. Otherwise, get a tasting flight of three kinds of daiginjo (the A-list sake) or seasonal sake for ¥1,000 yen (all 60ml pours). And if you find something you like, you can purchase the entire bottle to go.
The snack selection, on the other hand, is a playful take on traditional tachinomi (standing bar) offerings, like cans of braised fish and stewed motsu (innards), as well as Japan bar favourites like potato salad, tsukemono (pickles), hiyayakko (cold dressed tofu), edamame and smoked cheese. Kengyo is located just five minutes from Ginza’s main Chuo-dori shopping street, making it the perfect spot to swing by between department stores.
Established 40 years ago, the aptly named Grandfather’s started out with a playlist style that was uncommon at the time, blending together rock LPs one song at a time. Today, the tunes are a selection of popular music (mainly AOR and funk and soul) from the ’70s, when vinyl records were mainstream. However, the owner is constantly on the lookout for new music and if a modern artist wins his favour they’ll get some ‘airtime’ too. After all these years, the interior is still well maintained, giving off a rich ambience that’s appropriate for such a venerable bar and that lends an extra level of charm to the music.
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