Kyoto was Japan’s capital city for hundreds of years and it remains to this day the great city of art and culture in Japan. It is where many of the great artistic legacies of Japan began, including the culinary arts. Japanese food is often seen and respected as an art form as well as a thing to eat, and the food found in Kyoto is some of the finest in all of Japan. That means when you visit a Kyoto restaurant, you know you're experiencing the best of the best.
In its fourth generation of ownership, Izuju in Gion is the oldest sushi restaurant in Kyoto. They specialize in local-style sushi such as pickled mackerel on rice, grilled hamo eel, and inarizushi made with deep-fried tofu skin. The rice is made using a traditional hearth and each dish is crafted with passion. English menus and affordable set meals are available. For a traditional sushi experience in Kyoto this is an ideal choice.
It is rare to visit Awomb without a patient yet sizeable line at its door, as it’s one of the most popular sushi restaurants in Kyoto and easily the most fun. Awomb serves everything that makes up an incredible sushi meal artfully arranged on a black slate. After being served, you get to make the sushi yourself with (English) guidance if you need it. Perfectly seasoned rice, nori sheets, and a range of moreish fillings are presented. No combination is judged and it’s all delicious.
Here you’ll find high-class surroundings and service for budget prices, particularly if you go for the lunch deal that costs around 1,000 yen. They specialize in fresh fish dishes and the sashimi sets alone are the reason they’re often fully-booked for dinner days in advance. Ideally, you should make a reservation for dinner but you can turn up for lunch and they’ll call you when they have room. With traditional decor and tatami floor seating, this is a perfect Kyoto experience and ideal for seafood lovers.
Found on Philosopher’s Path, one of the most scenic walks in Kyoto, this minimalist restaurant is perfect for soba lovers. The owner of Juugo makes the buckwheat noodles by hand right in front of you and serves them with a side of flavorful dipping sauce. Thicker and chewier than the average soba, he uses his own recipe developed over years of study. Juugo is an intimate eight-seat restaurant so you may have to wait but the line generally moves quickly and it’s more than worth the wait.
Honke Daiichi Asahi
As a rule, you’ll find some of the best ramen joints near (or in) Japanese subway stations and Kyoto is no exception. Honke Daiichi Asahi is one of the most popular ramen restaurants, founded over 50 years ago. Like many of the best ramen spots they specialize in one style of ramen, in this case pork tonkotsu; they also serve local beer and dumplings. Just five minutes from Kyoto Station, it’s a perfect stop for some belly-warming ramen as you’re traveling in and out of the city.
Get ready to slurp noodles on a tatami mat at a 548-year old soba restaurant, arguably the most famous in Kyoto. Honke Owariya’s soba and broth are made on-site with the delicate flavor of the soup coming from Kyoto well water and the highest quality rishiri kombu (kelp). Toppings include shitake, omelet, as well as an assortment of seeds and pickles. The set menu is a perfect choice if you’re looking for a hearty meal as it comes with a side of crispy tempura and homemade miso. Don’t forget to check the dessert menu for some Kyoto delicacies!
Kaiseki can best be defined as small, simple yet beautiful dishes elegantly served over multiple courses; it’s a dining experience very much associated with Kyoto. Gion Owatari is a Michelin-starred kaiseki eight-seat restaurant set within a refurbished traditional Japanese tea house. You’ll be served dishes on the chef’s recommendation, which will depend on the season. An added bonus: as a qualified sommelier, the chef will make sure any sake and tea accompanying your meal is expertly chosen.
Head to Nishijin, one of Kyoto’s older, quainter areas for this cozy spot that’s a favorite with locals. Perfect for tofu-lovers, this kaiseki experience focuses on the many ways tofu is prepared in Japan. Kyoto is known for its fantastic tofu and there’s no better place to get to know the humble soybean. Dressed in kimono, the waiters serve everything from fried tofu to yuba (tofu skin) to simmered tofu in spring water to tofu-based desserts. Side dishes of tempura and sashimi are also available.
A former teahouse with over 400-years of history and original tatami flooring, eating at the Michelin 3-star Hyotei is one of those special dining experiences you can only have in Japan. The kaiseki served here is particularly traditional and focuses on fresh vegetables and fish dishes. They also specialize in savory porridge breakfast sets called asagayu. Hyotei offers traditional tea ceremonies with a meal and diners can pick up unique food and dining-related gifts. Making a reservation is necessary and can be made through their website.
Shabu Shabu Yamafuku
Shabu Shabu is one of the most fun Japanese meals you can have while still offering high-quality, healthy, and delicious food. Yamafuku offers thin slices of wagyu beef, fresh vegetables, and tofu to simmer in your hot pot until they’re ready to eat. The delicate broth uses flying fish from Nagasaki and soy milk which allows for a creamy subtle flavor that compliments the ingredients perfectly. Once you’ve finished dipping your meat and vegetables, you’ll be served noodles to soak up all that flavor. Order a drink and start dipping.
Another restaurant tucked away on Philosopher’s Path and a wonderful contemporary twist on the multi-course kaiseki meal. Monk is a minimalist restaurant that focuses on the use of open fire to bring flavor to unique dishes using local farm-fresh and foraged ingredients. The result is a perfect blend of Japanese and Western haute cuisine. They offer a tasting menu featuring seven courses for 7,000 yen which centers around their famous handmade sourdough pizza. Side dishes vary depending on what has been foraged that day but rest assured you’ll be impressed. Booking is recommended and you can reserve online via their website.
This is a quirky teppanyaki restaurant with an, often comical, pre-war decor. Immensely popular with locals and visitors alike, they specialize in one particular type of okonomiyaki (a savory fried pancake made of a mix of vegetables and meat or seafood). Apart from being a delicious and filling snack, it only costs 630 yen which is very affordable for the Gion district. Issen Yoshoku also serves an addictive matcha red bean jelly for dessert and offers a small soft-drinks menu. There’s a limited amount of seating (both indoor and outdoor) but it’s also an easy meal to grab and go while sightseeing.
Drinking Japanese beers and eating grilled chicken on skewers is one of the most pleasurable and basic dining experiences in Japan. Yakitori comes in many forms depending on what part of the chicken you want to eat and what vegetable and sauce accompaniments you want but it’s always fresh, cheap, and delicious. The servers grill the skewers right in front of you which is always fun to watch. Yakitori Daikichi is perfect if you’re looking for somewhere open late as they serve until midnight.
Every beef lover has to try wagyu while in Japan and this award-winning restaurant is a great choice to taste the delicacy. Izutsuya Sanjo is famous for serving particularly lean beef with cows from their own ranch, bred for sweetness and flavor. They also grow their own vegetables. The wagyu served is A5, A4, or A3 quality and the chefs are professionally trained. Even the dining experience has been carefully considered with three rooms catered to the individual diner such as individual booths or longer tables with a garden view. You can order a la carte or from set menus which makes it easy for beginners. There’s also an all-you-can-drink menu for 2,000 yen.
With over 100 food and produce stalls and a traditional market atmosphere, Nishiki Market is somewhere all visitors to Kyoto should visit at least once. The local okonomiyaki favorite Nishiki Warai sits just outside the market and makes a perfect pit-stop before wandering through. The okonomiyaki is extra thick and with several options, there’s something for everyone. Fried noodles are served alongside making for a delicious carb-fest that goes down well with a local beer.