All foodie scenes considered, Montreal izakayas are a fairly recent phenomena. A late bloomer to a Japanese pub scene already anchored in New York, San Francisco, and even Vancouver, Montreal izakayas started their proliferation in 2010, first with the likes of Big in Japan and foodie royalty Kazu.
Since then, roughly two dozen izakayas have opened across the city, spreading with them a taste for traditional izakaya fare, menus dominated by deep-fried and savory umami flavors via dumplings, skewered meats and vegetarian alternatives. Basically anything that pairs well with sake is fair game.
Sushi, sashimi and maki are commonly found in Montreal izakayas as well. Though contrary to what's turned into a common Western assumption, sushi is not a traditional Japanese tavern dish.
Top Montreal Izakayas: Kyo
According to Kyo izakaya manager and Nagoya native Keiko Ito, sushi has great merit as a healthy food in Japan, and that's exactly why you're less likely to spot it sold as pub food. Fried and grilled food is closer to what you'd find in one of her hometown taverns. Izakaya dishes are also traditionally served as tapas instead of full-sized meals. “Everybody arrives and each person orders this, this, and this and then we share,” Ito says.
The Standard: Kazu
Kazu is oft revered as Montreal's chief izakaya, the one to beat, the hole in the wall that always, and I mean always has a lineup at its front door during opening hours.
Nearly everyone who's been inside Kazu's invariably packed and cramped Tokyo-like ecosystem raves about the food. Couple customer willingness to wait up to one hour for the best izakaya food in the city with management's refusal to take reservations and you're left with one inevitable action plan: suck it up and toe the line.
The Elegant: Kyo
Think you hate sake? Then you haven't been to Kyo.
A reservation-taking alternative to Kazu, Kyo offers a roomier, more polished izakaya experience on the edge of Old Montreal ripe with date night and 5-à-7 potential. The food prices are surprisingly reasonable and competitive given the locale's elegant, upscale veneer and the sake selection is, from what I can tell, among the more extensive and impressive in Montreal.
The Godfather: Big in Japan
Yet Big in Japan didn't claim it was an izakaya, suggesting it was at best inspired by the Japanese pub concept when it first opened in 2010, serving edamame, chicken wings, ramen soups, and assorted crispy fried meats, tofu and fish.
However Big in Japan's bar, the one up the street neighboring greasy spoon extraordinaire Patati Patata, gets a steady stream of high praise. The ambiance is bewitching, candles flickering from multiple angles against a ceiling peppered with suspended whiskey bottles. And the drinks are elegant, from the joint's list of premium Manhattans to my favorite, nigori sake, a cloudy, almost creamy variety of the typically translucent rice beverage.
The only problem here is the bar even further removed from an authentic izakaya than Big in Japan's restaurant. There's not much in the way of food at Big in Japan Bar, save orders of kimchi, tuna takaki, pecans and kimchi salsa with chips. So you might have to hop over to the restaurant and its quirky diner vibe to calm bigger appetites.
Big in Japan's restaurant stays open late until 3 a.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Big Japan's bar is open every day from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.
The Happy: Imadake
The first time I walked into Imadake, I did so because I was terribly discouraged with Kazu's lineups. So knowing Imadake was a few blocks west, I figured I'd give the almost-as-popular izakaya a try.
And I was greeted with the biggest, most authentic smile ever seen by the evening's pig-tailed hostess. I was subsequently escorted out the door with the biggest, most authentic smile ever seen since the one five seconds earlier.
The problem? I had no reservations. And from what I was told, the likelihood of being able to spontaneously stroll into Imadake after 7 p.m. and score a spot at a table is about as likely as showing up at Kazu and not having to wait in line.
The Night: Flyjin
Branding itself an exclusive Japanese pub that turns nightlife venue at midnight Wednesdays through Saturdays, Old Montreal's Flyjin proposes a sleek decor, posh patrons and an izakaya-inspired menu concocted by "Chopped Canada" judge Antonio Park.
See, be seen, and dress the part.
The Interior: Kinoya
Kinoya gets top scores for interior decor and 5-à-7 deals, including drink specials and $1 oysters on select evenings. Casual vibe. A drop-by-if-you're-in-the-neighborhood type place on St. Denis Street in the Plateau. Open until 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
The Food: Kinka
And so far, its food is the closest that's come to competing with Kazu. Extremely lively and noisy atmosphere.
The Buzz: Biiru
Positive buzz follows Biiru like a gold-tinged shadow since its winter 2014 opening. Choice downtown location nestled north of Ste. Catherine Street on City Councillors, not too far from my favorite pizza joint in Montreal.