In 2017 chef Shota Nakajima recast his more formal and classically Japanese kaiseki restaurant from Naka to Adana. Same Capitol Hill digs, more come-as-you-are vibe. He heeded the cry for more casual fare with a menu of Japanese comfort food, much of it based on recipes from his mom. But he retained the aspects of Naka most important to him. Namely the coursed menu (now abbreviated down to three or eight rounds for $37 or $80, respectively, with several options for each course) and a reverence for Pacific Northwest ingredients and seasons. This everyman’s kaiseki feels casually luxe: grilled octopus topped with bright orange orbs of ikura, okra accompanied by pork belly and delicate wisps of katsuobushi, beef curry built on an hours-brewed batch of dashi. The street food–inspired bar menu skews even more relaxed; here the kitchen slings such things as a katsu sando, homey bites of panko-crust pork between slices of Japanese white bread. Doubling down on the casual eats, Nakajima's opening Taku, a late-night kushikatsu bar, on Capitol Hill this year.
Betsutenjin softly opened on First Hill one summer of yore when Seattle was flirting with 80-degree weather. That didn’t stop the near-daily crowds. The ramen bar has scant seating, so better to belly up to the bar facing the kitchen, which issues Hakata-style ramen, here an opaque, ivory-white pork broth with thin wheat noodles, pork slices, nori, and seaweed. It’s so creamy that signage throughout the restaurant assures there’s not a drop of milk. But if you try asking what techniques are involved in making a ramen so permeated with pig and umami, the server might just press her finger over her lips and smile. Go back to slurping, and be satisfied that you were able to snag a spot underneath the TV showing a ’60s-era samurai flick or J-Pop music videos.
One of the best views in this second-story bar is a window seat that overlooks Hing Hay Park. Or perhaps it’s along the bar proper, watching a nearby big screen. Or maybe it’s anywhere you can just drink your unfussy cocktail and dig into Japanese comfort foods like a homey bowl of pork katsu on rice.
A pastiche of how Seattle eats right now would look a lot like this: subway tile, crowds awaiting takeout. So much poke. But before raw fish salad seized our fast-casual imaginations, there was chirashi. This Japanese comfort food spot surfs a breaker of buzz thanks to its version—rice blanketed with an almost obscene amount of raw fish. Salmon, three types of tuna, shrimp, and broiled eel glisten on Instagram, but the reality is every bit as vivid and pleasurable as the social media imagery. The donburi, rice bowls topped with rich broiled eel, seared salmon, or tonkatsu satisfy on a more visceral, if less photogenic level.
New owner Susien Lee expanded the pastry menu a tad, but fresh Japanese baking traditions remain ever on display. This Japanese bakery slings matcha macarons and savory curry buns, but the sugar-coated hero is the Crunchy Cream: filled with vanilla custard and covered in cereal cornflakes—the real breakfast of champions. Don’t skip the golden beef curry buns. Then there’s green tea danishes and green tea cookies, as well as a cache of glossy tarts and treats touched with a bit of Asian influence, all of which issue from the ovens of Fuji Bakery in Bellevue, Interbay, and Chinatown–International District.
The Japanese chain’s first freestanding U.S. location excels at two things: managing crowds and making ramen. Every variation here contains tonkotsu-style broth—a creamy confluence of pound after pound of pork bones and hour after hour of boiling in pots the size of beer kegs.
Enter this restaurant on Mount Baker’s main drag, recently returned from a lengthy hiatus, and the first thing you’ll notice is the stunning view. Followed closely by the arrestingly beautiful food, like risotto imbued with herbs and lemon and topped with crunchy Japanese-style tatsuta-age sweetbreads. Chef Toshiyuki Kawai applies the ethos of his native Japan to French cuisine, and Iconiq (yes, the name is cheesy) strikes a tricky balance between ambitious dining and the sort of casual neighborhood hang Seattle so enjoys.
Why yes, as a matter of fact, those are jalapeños cradling your snow crab legs and eight-spiced tuna. Japonessa may be downtown’s sushi cocina, mashing up Japanese food with Latin inflections, but purists take heart: The chef-owner is the seasoned Billy Beach—an alum of Umi and onetime Kushibar owner—and the sushi is consistently more substantive and solidly prepared than all the hot noise and scene might suggest. Creations like agedashi tofu and tempura-fried brie, followed by a monstrous Street Fighter II Roll, open the mind and the palate. And the pocketbook—though happy hour seems to roll straight on through the day here.
There’s so much backstory to the delicate noodles that chef Mutsuko Soma makes by hand via centuries-old methods at her Fremont soba restaurant, it’s easy to overlook the basic fact of eating here: The food is really flipping fun. The lineup of eight-ish soba dishes takes the occasional culinary liberty with classic combinations; Japanese chefs weren’t making soba with duck meatballs or curry with gooey mozzarella centuries ago, but in Soma’s hands it all makes sense. Same goes for the tempura menu, which might dress up fried satsuma yam with honey and gorgonzola. Dismiss the tempura Oreos as a mere gimmick and you’ll miss out on a surprisingly legitimate dessert. Kamonegi took over the original Art of the Table space, as well as its legacy for making unlikely magic in a tiny, awkwardly shaped space. No wonder it’s always hopping.
The term “best-kept-secret” no longer applies to the bar area at this enduring izakaya, especially after legendary barman Murray Stenson did a turn here a few years back. Scarlet lanterns reading “Izakaya” light up the doorways of Tokyo snack bars, beckoning weary workers with early-evening belts and bites. Two such oblong fixtures dangle outside Kaname, where worn hardwoods and lager-promoting table tents feel as spot-on as the menu—fried chicken, chilled tofu, snowball-size panko-crusted croquettes—and the focus on shochu, an earthy spirit made from potato, barley, or rice that they sip like crazy in Japan. The place is filled with downtown white collars who hop the light rail from University Street station with happy hour on their minds, and it remains a reliable destination for drinks and snacks before a concert, after a game, or just for the hell of it.
After 16 years of charming regulars with both his shy grace and daily fresh sheet, Ryuichi Nakano sold his Tangletown sushi destination to a new owner, Kyu Bum Han. His presence may be irreplaceable, but the rest of Kisaku is mostly (and mercifully) unchanged, from the tablecloths to the mix of seasonal specialties alongside staple maki and nigiri at exceedingly reasonable prices. The counter omakase is still the way to go.
America’s ramen obsession generally centers on the blow-it-out porky tonkotsu style. But when three locals sought a Japanese ramen chain they could franchise in Puget Sound, they wanted one equally fluent in the charms of clear, chicken broth ramen styles like shio (salt) or shoyu (soy). The chain (previously known as Kukai) now has three locations around town, all of them reliably crowded.
The crowd at this International District restaurant and bar often skews young, but in fact, it does not get more old-school in Seattle than the century-old Maneki, a homey haunt of homely delights kept in line by a couple of no-nonsense aunties and traditional Japanese cooks. This legend could easily coast on lore alone, from surviving war and internment to the motherly order imposed by longtime stewards Jean Nakayama and Fusae “Mom” Yokoyama. It’s the food, however, driving the inevitable wait for a table. Regulars know to look to the whiteboard for exceptional daily specials, but then there are much-adored mainstays, like monkfish liver, sliced sashimi-style over shredded daikon with ponzu sauce. Yep, there’s a bar. But Maneki shines brighter for its comforting bar snacks and homestyle entree combinations.
In the shadow of the landmark Chinatown Gate dwells an outpost of Wallingford’s casual sushi mainstay. Musashi’s is all about efficiency, from tabletop thermoses of serve-yourself tea to the signature chirashi bowls, the most economical and purposeful way to get good quality sashimi into your mouth.
Fans have touted the restorative benefits of matcha for years. So what if this Denny Regrade newcomer—part of a Japanese chain of cafes—churns the healthful green tea powder into chartreuse-hued ice cream? Scoops of it cap off an already decadent parfait of layered matcha pudding, soft serve, cornflakes, red bean paste, and mochi balls. It’s a perfect balance of bitter and sweet, much like Nana’s other matcha-everything beverages and dessert offerings.
It’s exquisite sushi, in an austere yet lovely room at the gateway to Madison Park. Careful cuts and artful compositions are the hallmarks, along with near-perfect service and the sense that everyone in the room is a regular. Compose your own meal—Nishino offers omakase, where the chef designs the courses, but there are better places in town for it.
At Ooink chef-owner Chong Boon Ooi and his wife, Jiaxin Wang, dole out vessel after vessel of silky porcine soup above Broadway and Pike in their small balmy restaurant. Electronic music befitting a Fast and the Furious sequel gently booms as diners slurp up ramen, some of which buck tradition. Take the spicy mapo tofu ramen that reimagines a classic Chinese dish as noodle soup: A shoyu and pork broth base is topped with Szechuan-style, chile-oil-imbued ground pork and soft tofu, pickled mustard, and a nest of crispy buckwheat noodles.
Sushi bars spread like herring roe in this town, but the one long personified by Shiro Kashiba remains one of the best, even after his departure. The small room is elegant in a plain Bauhaus fashion, and you will eat exceptionally well on one of its white tablecloths. But the dozen seats at the sushi bar are the place to be, both for the show and for the entirely unpredictable, sometimes revelatory, offerings of the evening. Best to dispense with ordering (unless you crave uni, which will mark you as a customer deserving of attention) and ask to be surprised. You may be amazed, and you’ll at least be entertained by old masters who both respect tradition and dare to invent. Their exuberance seems to rub off; the sushi and show get strangers at the bar chatting like old friends, belying everything you’ve ever heard about Seattleite and Japanese reticence.
Vancouver exported a wisp of its rocking izakaya culture to Pike/Pine, where chef Makoto Kimoto—a veteran of the original to the north—cross-pollinates exuberant Japanese drinking food with Seattle’s penchant for the spicy. Pressed Osaka-style sushi and smoked tuna tataki are staples, but Kimoto’s rotating fresh sheet is full of riffs like a carpaccio of smoked beef tenderloin and Asian-inflected poutine.
It’s easy to say the charm of this serene Eastlake dining room is all about Taichi Kitamura, the genial presence behind the sushi bar. But that would do a disservice to his carefully sourced seasonal seafood, not to mention composed plates, like rich black cod glazed in miso or chawanmushi layered with crabmeat. In matters of sushi, Kitamura knows when to simply showcase pristine fish and when to introduce a little flair—or jalapeño.
Shiro Kashiba is a verifiable sushi legend in this town; a half-century after he arrived from Japan to become Seattle’s first sushi chef, Kashiba opened this serene restaurant in the heart of Pike Place Market, where people queue up for a spot at the 14-seat sushi bar and perhaps the most pristine sushi experience Seattle has to offer. If you’re more into reservations than long waits, the dining room offers the same omakase menu as the counter, plus classic Shiro dishes a la carte. To clear up any confusion: The chef is no longer affiliated with his previous more casual restaurant Shiro’s in Belltown, though it still bears his name and is still worth a visit.
Pike/Pine izakaya Suika spun off this more cavernous sibling up the street, serving the same masterful mashup of Japanese drinking food. A sashimi sampler is served on a tiny wood staircase, the dan dan noodles are stunning in both looks and flavor, and sizzling hot stones serve as tabletop grills for thin slices of wagyu beef. Sake and cheerful cocktails are plenty enjoyable at the bar, even more so with a round of sushi out on the covered patio.
The bright, warmly lit industrial space in the lobby of the Via6 apartments is the Asian fusion joint Tom Douglas has been hinting at for years. One of a tangle of Douglas businesses including a coffeehouse and a gift shop, the setup can be confusing (is this patio table for sale or am I in another restaurant?). Once seated, however, the place buzzes with a drop-in youthfulness befitting the menu of boundary-busting Asian comfort foods—things like ketchup-bacon fried rice or pork and sweet corn ramen—that will horrify purists but kick off cravings for everyone else. Drinks, boozy or un-, are uncommonly intriguing here.
You could be fooled into believing that a signless restaurant on a quiet street in a nondescript building was your new little secret spot, until you pull open the orange door to find it packed with groups already waiting for their chance at Japanese favorites: expertly sliced sushi, fresh fish specials like, perhaps, black cod in a simple shio broth with vegetables. The homestyle Japanese fare is the reason to go. Bygone dishes such as the chicken gizzard kushiyaki, rice vinegar–marinated smelt, and whole grilled squid are still emblematic of the restaurant’s adept way with simple ingredients. Salty-sweet mozuku seaweed salad. Hearty bowls of curry rice. Crunchy fried pork cutlet with a piquant sauce. Light, lacy golden fingers of tempura. While its lunch hours are no more, the famous shoyu ramen thankfully lives on during Saturday brunch service.
This duo of fast-casual noodle shops is all about Japan’s udon, either in warming soups or just lightly sauced, with simple, mostly classic toppings like a thick slab of fried tofu. Order your noodles, then choose from a bevy of tempura for topping and dipping. The U District location is students galore; the new one in Capitol Hill’s 12th Avenue Arts building has a calmer vibe.
From the minimalist blond interior to the complimentary dish of edamame that precedes each meal, Urara is a chill neighborhood sushi restaurant whose neighborhood just happens to be Pike Place Market. The menu is broad—chicken katsu curry, salmon sashimi, maki rolls that sport varying degrees of flair—and friendly servers keep water glasses filled and don’t dally with the check during lunch hour.
This minimalist room on Tilikum Place in Belltown is home to Seattle’s only kaiseki restaurant. Chef Hiro Tawara devises a single menu for each month; the six-course version is available in the dining room, but the counter, with its eight courses explained by the chef himself, is a far more engaging experience. Tawara trained in kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto; here he adapts Japan’s oldest form of fine dining to fashion a parade of small dishes that celebrate the season. His food is subtle; Wa’z isn’t a place for umami bombs or drizzles of spicy sauce. But at its best, the supremely subtle food challenges diners to slow down and appreciate how beautifully a sweet fig lends itself to tempura, or the nuance that a gelee of reduced dashi can bring to an otherwise spare arrangement of chilled vegetables. While the food is restrained, the sake menu is downright expansive.
Chef Kotaro Kumita’s a minimalist, working with two glass-topped wooden boxes of fresh, raw fish and restrained Edomae sushi sensibility; somehow he knows the perfect tiny flourish—yuzu or a searing wave of the butane torch—to bring out the best in each piece of nigiri. Wataru’s tiny Ravenna dining room has all of 16 seats, but the best meals happen face to face with Kumita at the modest sushi bar (and involve his omakase).
What began as a yakitori destination with a confusing numeric name, 4649, has morphed into an izakaya that pays particular attention to dishes from Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Chef Keisuke Kobayashi grew up in its largest city, Sapporo, and prepares the region’s zangi fried chicken, a barbecue-style lamb dish here dubbed Zin Gis Kahn, and Hokkaido scallops in butter. The rest of the menu is equal parts Japanese staples (adept ramen, okonomiyaki sashimi, and pressed sushi) and drinking snacks that veer in a more Northwesterly direction, like uni bruschetta and shishito peppers. Between the food, the expanded space, and the roster of sakes and Japanese whiskey, Yoroshiku is one of those chill neighborhood restaurants that’s solidly worth a trip from another part of town.