Refuel with Japanese tapas

An izakaya, which translates to “stay sake shop,” is a lively and informal bar that typically serves a variety of small dishes and alcoholic beverages. In Japan, they are particularly clustered around train stations. Izakayas are sometimes likened to Irish pubs or tapas bars, offering a place to restore oneself after a day’s work. Izakaya restaurants have been opening at a rapid pace all over the city, claiming a spot in Vancouver’s diverse culinary scene, some of them offering fusion dishes.

Traditional izakayas are vibrant places where customers are welcomed into the restaurant by someone shouting “irasshaimase” (“welcome” in Japanese). Both servers and cooks say it loudly, and with a smile, every time a new customer enters the restaurant.

People can sit at the bar to watch the cooks prepare their food, or at the tables to enjoy the company of a group of friends. In more traditional izakayas, while waiting for the first drink to come, the customer receives an oshibori (wet towel) to clean hands and an otoshi (a little appetizer), a compulsory appetizer offered before choosing from a variety of small dishes. Although some restaurants in Vancouver try to follow these traditions, others elect to skip these details.

“In Japan, izakayas are a great place to have a drink after work with friends or colleagues, while eating good food,” says Takeshi Hasegawa, vice president of Kitanoya Guu, the company that pioneered izakayas in Canada in 2000, guaranteeing a true umami experience.

A slow awakening to an unexpected menu

Hasegawa, originally from Nagoya, Japan, moved to Vancouver more than 15 years ago. Kitanoya Guu opened the very first izakaya restaurant in Vancouver in 1993 at a time when it was possible to find only traditional Japanese sushi or classic yakitori (grilled skewered chicken).

“It took almost six years before Vancouverites figured izakayas out. We did not change anything about the original atmosphere and the idea when importing this concept over,” says Hasegawa. “At the beginning people were confused by the tiny portions of the food and the menu itself. They could not find the food that they were expecting from a Japanese restaurant.”

An izakaya might be the perfect place to taste and sample Japanese fusion. It is a place to try starters like miso cream cheese, chopped tuna sashimi garnished with green onion and seaweed, akabocha croquette (pumpkin and boiled egg), or mango cheese cake.

“Tapas are based on our traditional cuisine, but chefs feel free to experiment with new flavours, mixing ingredients and tastes from other international cuisines like Italian, German, Spanish, Korean or Chinese,” says Hasegawa.

Try them out

It took several years after the first one opened in Vancouver for izakayas to become more popular. Currently, there are several izakaya restaurants across Metro Vancouver.

Evidence of their popularity has been recorded in past annual Dine Out Vancouver Festival guides. A handful of izakayas took part in the festivals, giving Vancouverites multiple venues at which to try the Japanese-style tapas. The festival is celebrating its 16th anniversary this year and will be featuring a number of Japanese restaurants offering dishes beyond sushis to satiate diners and leave them feeling good.