Long gone are the days when the capital’s residents would pine for a decent bowl of ramen or a quality roll of sushi. The best Japanese restaurants in DC have now effectively become some of the best restaurants in DC—period. When tired of indulging in all things pasta at the best Italian restaurants in DC or looking for something a bit more eclectic than the best tacos in DC, visit these local spots and devour all the soba, sushi and tempura your heart desires. No matter what you’re craving, these eateries are sure to deliver.
Best Japanese restaurants in DC
Sushi Taro underwent a major renovation in 2009, becoming an upmarket Kaiseki-style traditional Japanese restaurant under owner Nobu Yamazaki. In a kaiseki-style meal, diners don’t order off a menu. Instead, the chef presents a succession of selected dishes. The Suppon Kaiseki Tasting focuses on the very traditional soft-shell snapping turtle. There is also an excellent saké selection.
Hip twentysomethings squeeze into this tiny spot to slurp big bowls of ramen in rich, house-made broth. The dumplings are great, too—we especially like the grilled pork ones—and there are more than 20 kinds of saké available. The space is decorated with graffiti, skateboards and comic books and, for dessert, you can dunk warm chocolate-chip cookies in a glass of milk. What’s not to like? Just one thing: the wait for walk-in seats can take a couple of hours. Limited reservations are available for lunch and from 5-6pm for dinner (excluding Saturdays). If you find yourself waiting for a table, head downstairs to Atlas Arcade and play a few rounds of Pac-Man until the host texts you.
A brisk walk from the main drag of restaurants and bars near U and 14th streets, NW, Izakaya Seki is tucked into an unassuming and narrow, two-floor row house. Choose to eat upstairs in the dining room or downstairs at the chef’s bar. Either choice is equally no-frill; coat hooks are just about the only décor. Once seated, you’ll be hard-pressed not to salivate, either over plates arriving at neighboring tables or by what the robata cooks behind the bar are turning over a low flame. When it comes time to choose what to drink, brace yourself for page after page of saké selections. Your server is your best ally here. Another great ally: the list of specials handwritten on a piece of scrap paper, usually accompanied by a quirky doodle or two. The chef’s rotating sashimi selection is explosively rich (note: the wasabi here is fresh) and the seasonal miso soup is not to be missed. From the main menu, order the slow-grilled octopus. The salmon roe hand roll—with its barely-warm rice and fresh roe—will put you in a state of nirvana. In short: Izakaya Seki deserves a deep bow of respect.
The breakout star of 2016, this modern Japanese restaurant packs big flavors into a tiny space—just 24 seats in total, to be precise. Chef Kevin Tien blends Latin American and Southeast Asian flavors with Japanese ingredients for explosively delicious dishes. The menu changes almost daily to reflect fresh cuts of fish, but you can always expect the main attraction: a buttermilk fried chicken thigh with a Korean glaze and kewpie. Drinks, courtesy of beverage wiz and co-owner Carlie Steiner, are equally playful: think gin and tonic with fresh lavender, a rosé mule and white rum with lime, seaweed and sea salt.
Unless you score a reservation at this Capitol Hill sushi restaurant, there’s a slim chance you’ll find yourself eating dinner here. Not only is the restaurant teeny, but the secret is out about its incredibly fresh fish and masterfully prepared rolls at bargain prices. Our advice: Ask your waiter to pick your dishes rather than opting for the omakase (chef’s menu). He or she can tell you exactly what they got in that day and what’s worth trying. Also, we’d recommend waiting for a seat at the bar where you can watch your food being prepared instead of sitting at a table.
Pro tip: Don’t overlook the daily specials here. They’re often just-in cuts of fish, like fatty yellowtail jaw sprinkled with fresh-squeezed lemon juice or uni so fresh you’d swear you were under water. A hotspot for nearby Georgetown University students, Kintaro can often draw a younger crowd. Regulars will tell you to try the ramen, and they’re right. Just make sure you don’t overlook the chirashi bowl and nigiri layed atop a mound of just-right rice.
There are more than a few rules at this reservations-only joint outside of Georgetown. Take, for example, the strict dress code (no athletic gear or tank tops); the no cell-phone policy (don’t even think about checking Instagram); and a suggested perfume-free environment. Though it may come off as rigid, Sakedokoro Makoto is simply engineering the purest, most uninterrupted atmosphere for you to enjoy your meal in. Trust us: You’re going to want all of your attention focused on the pristine (read: pricey) omakase or prix-fixe meal before you. If you’re looking for something a little more approachable and easier on the wallet, try Kotobuki—the sister restaurant just upstairs.
The metal exterior of this Japanese spot behind the Gallery Place movie theater is carved with designs that resemble the symbol for wi-fi signals. If that doesn't clue you in that the place you're about to walk into is not your usual bar, one look at the menu of the upstairs izakaya should do the trick. Drinks are inventive and surprising—especially the take on a saké bomb, with spherified saké floating in a glass of Sapporo—and the small plates include ingredients not often found on Japanese menus, such as burrata salad and Old Bay seasoning. More traditional dishes make an appearance, too, including pork-filled onigiri and sashimi, but chef Daisuke Utagawa's training with José Andrés means even the familiar has unexpected elements. Reservations are available online, and they're a good idea; the sultry lighting and cool decor (red-backed bar shelves, manga wallpaper) encourage lingering at a table over another glass of saké or sochu.
Hate making decisions? You’ll feel right at home at this Dupon den, where the omakase experience is the wisest choice. Grab one of seven seats at chef Minoru Ogawa’s counter and allow him to wow you with the freshest cuts of the day, often flown in from Japan. Owned by the same all-star team as Sushi Capitol, Sushi Ogawa offers a more elevated, gourmet experience. If chef’s dishes don’t transport you, the interior certainly will. The entryway is modeled after a Japanese garden, with trickling water and a stone path that leads you to a number of rooms cloaked behind a curtain.
Sushi king Kazuhiro Okochi made his mark at Sushi-Ko, successfully melding Asian and Western ingredients, before bringing the winning formula here. The sushi itself is top-notch, featuring fish that is gorgeous and glistening, while the rice has a touch of sweetness unlike any you’ll find elsewhere. But should your tastes not include raw fish, there’s also a bounty of wonderfully cooked items on offer, including grilled baby octopus, coriander-crusted calamari and Asian-style short ribs.