Yakitori is often seen as a cheap and cheerful meal. Selected chicken parts are skewered with kushi (a stick typically made from bamboo or sometimes steel), and then slowly grilled over charcoal fire while lathering it in tare, a sweet soy sauce and mirin mix. Its sweet, salty and smokey flavours make it the perfect bar snack – pairs well with ice cold beer and best enjoyed in an izakaya.
But in recent years, chefs are beginning to elevate the image and the appeal of this Japanese staple, by using brand chicken, premium and off cuts, and even pairing it with sake and wine. A yakitori meal has become a culinary exploration of the chicken in its totality, and different parts of the bird are seasoned differently, be it with freshly grated wasabi or just a pinch of sea salt. For a taste of some of the best grilled chicken on skewers in the city, head to these restaurants.
(Don't know how to order? Check our yakitori photo menu before you go.)
Best yakitori restaurants
‘The chicken, the whole chicken, and nothing but the chicken,’ could be the motto for this Sangenjaya poultry palace. Chef Tokoshima serves 20 different items of grilled chicken, from the standard – breast, wings, thigh – to the startling. Anyone for ovaries? The simple seasoning – salt, black pepper and a splash of tare (sauce) – allows the natural flavours of the chicken to shine. It’s a beautiful, elegant restaurant, with dark wood panelling on the walls and the counter that surrounds Tokoshima’s kitchen, offering customers a close-up view of the master’s meticulous preparation of each and every kushi.
Torisawa sees no need to bother with fancy furniture or decorative flair. All that matters is the charcoal grill, a focal point everything else here revolves around. Every skewer lifted from the grill is small but perfectly formed – the luminous green Chinese daylilies contrast in colour and texture with the earthy brown chicken livers, while chicken ovaries hang from the skewers like burning lanterns. And don’t miss the chicken tenderloin, brushed with heat but still pink in the centre and topped with hand-scrubbed wasabi. Order the omakase (chef's selection) from the get-go and turn your eyes to the brief but impressive sake list – friends of junmaishu (pure sake) will have a field day.
Situated directly under a highway overpass in Shirokane, Toritama doesn’t boast the most glamorous of locations. However, this has not stopped it from being awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand or from becoming one of the city’s hardest-to-book yakitori joints. What makes it stand out is the extensive menu. Most yakitori restaurants grill standard parts like breast, thigh, heart, wings, gizzard and liver, but Toritama rolls out a menu of over 30 parts – plus the daily ‘secret menu’ of rare cuts, which brings the total up to 40. That’s a lot of chicken, and you’d need to be quite the anatomy expert to name them all on the fly. Sourced daily, the chicken is always as fresh as it gets, so those looking to try it raw can feel safe here.
The smoke coming from this izakaya is heavy with the smell of roast chicken, and starts enticing patrons from the early afternoon. Follow your nose and plonk yourself down here, as you'll be handsomely rewarded with ¥100 skewers and reasonably priced small plates that go rather well with a glass or two of something chilled. Ebisu attracts customers from all walks of life, from young couples to seniors who seem to never leave the place – we'd argue that's a guarantee of a good time.
Yakitori? It's cheap, dirty and needs to be washed down with copious amounts of ice cold beer, right? For the most part, that’s how it should be. However, if you're ready to try the refined side of the grill, then enter Yakitori Imai. Owner and grill master Takashi Imai opened his stylish thirty-seat, counter-style joint in November 2016 and has been reinventing skewered chicken through his considered approach ever since. Imai's philosophy is reflected in the dinner menu; it starts with a delicate chicken liver pate served on a crusty baguette before moving on to a leafy seasonal salad, the chef’s selection of six skewers and the grilled vegetables of the day – all for the very reasonable price of ¥4,500.
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