In North America, New York City represents the center of the izakaya universe. Even over LA or San Francisco, NYC boasts more Japanese taverns than any city in the U.S. While hard to count, there are some 50+ izakayas in the 5 boroughs, almost all of them in Manhattan. Many of these bars have been around for 30 years or more, serving solid Japanese comfort food to expats and salarymen. And the trend continues unabated with new izakayas opening all the time, most recently Shigure, SakaMai, and Fukurou all opening within the past few months.
After visits to LA, SF, Chicago, and Vancouver my expectations for izakaya scenes in other North American cities had diminished. While the izakayas I visited in those cities were authentic and interesting, there were not many of them. Vancouver had the most robust scene with a half dozen or so izakayas in the city center including the delicious Kingyo and Guu outposts.
Imagine my surprise when I arrived in Toronto to find not one, but two Guu locations (main location in photo above), another Kingyo, Zakkushi, and Ryoji Okinawan Izakayas. And those were just those that I was able to try and rave about. Yelp listed easily a dozen more that may require a return visit. The Toronto Izakaya scene proved to be pretty fantastic.
Guu Izakaya may have been the revelation. The large open space with frenetic service and fast flowing drinks has an average two hour wait – the longest of any Toronto restaurant. For izakaya food! Guests are limited to a 2 hour stay in order to keep the tables moving. While I find this policy the anti-thesis of the izakaya style of dining with lots of food, drinks, and laughter over the course of an evening, I can understand why they’d take this approach when they’re this insanely popular. Apparently they were smart enough to open next to a language school and it’s taken off from there.
Zakkushi was fabulous (though suffered from the same 2 hour time limit) with grilled chicken and other delights that were just one better than the last. Ryoji tried a bit too hard to be trendy, but their food and atmosphere was spot on. And Kingyo – well, Kingyo is a gem no matter where you have it. More seafood based than many other izakayas, they still had great fried chicken and other nibbles.
All Toronto izakaya do suffer from the same lack of shochu selection that I found in Vancouver, thanks to the ancient and backward Canadian liquor laws, but this is a small mark against the cities rather than the izakayas themselves. The same craft and dedication to authenticity that you find in NYC (or Japan) izakayas, you find in Toronto and Vancouver. Definitely worth a visit if you’re on an izakaya hunt. Toronto is a bigger city and so can support more of these places. It’s also just a short flight from NYC. Not that you need to go elsewhere to seek out great Japanese food.