Kyoto foodie guide: where locals eat and drink
Meander through tree-lined streets in Japan’s cultural capital to find traditional wooden machiya houses serving crisp tempura, pint-sized whisky bars and some of the best matcha tea in the world
Looking for Kyoto restaurants? Here are our favourite restaurants in the Japanese city, plus where to get the best prawn tempura, chicken ramen and matcha tea.
Ten-yu tempura – for tempura set lunch
The zen entrance of this tempura restaurant reflects what you’ll find inside – immaculate service, minimal interiors dominated by a single, 10-person, wooden counter (booking is essential!) and a hushed atmosphere broken only by the sound of prawns sizzling as they plop into a bashed-copper fryer.
The set lunch is a great option if you’re in a hurry or on a budget – a tray neatly arranged with a selection of superbly light and crisp tempura (on our visit prawns, fresh-water fish, lotus root, shiitake mushroom and bittersweet shishito peppers) to dip into a dashi sauce garnished with finely grated daikon, plus a bowl of fluffy rice and another of miso soup. If you want the full experience, order the kaiseki tasting menu and marvel in a succession of bitesize tempura, presented with a bow from the chef.
299 Shimohakusanchu; 00 81 75 212 7778
Bar Bunkyu – for whisky
In true Japanese style this pint-sized bar is hidden down a narrow alleyway on a Kyoto backstreet. Recommended to us by the head distiller at Kyoto Gin Distillery, it’s a truly unique spot – dimly lit and centred around a chunky wooden table with stools for eight. In a little alcove bartender cut out of the table, Nao serves his cherry-picked selection of first-class spirits.
Order a Kyoto Gin Distillery gin spruced up with a dash of yuzu and some Japanese pepper, or a Nikka Coffey whisky highball (whisky topped up with soda to allow the spirit to shine) then swap local tips with Nao (ask for details of his regular karaoke spot and he may just take you there himself!).
Torisei – for yakitori
Housed in a scorched wood old sake brewery, this izakaya-style restaurant is known for its yakitori. This popular snack literally means ‘skewered chicken’, and here you can get it in all forms – from chicken thigh pieces to more adventurous liver, neck and crispy skin. The menu isn’t limited to skewers so, if you fancy something different, try fried chicken skin dumplings or a fresh chicken salad served with ponzu dressing. You’re in Kyoto’s sake brewery district so order a Kuradashi Nama-genshu sake to sip with your food.
Fushimi sakegura kouji – for sake tasting
Enter this ‘sake village’ from Nayamachi Street and snake your way through a warren of restaurants until you arrive at a busy space lined with food kiosks, and multi-coloured sake bottles of all colours and sizes. Hop onto a stool and order a 17-taster tray of sakes to sip, from across Japan – Kuramoto Shuzo (in the mountains of Nara) and Heiwa Shuzo (in a valley in the Wakayama region, south of Kyoto) were among our preferred brews.
While you’re there, choose a selection of snacks from the various kiosks – don’t miss salty dried firefly squid, sweet sardines and sakura ebi (cherry blossom shrimp – named because of their colour) cooked on your own table-top charcoal grill. Other highlights include karaage (fried chicken) with grated daikon and citrusy ponzu sauce, and kushikatsu (deep-fried skewers of bittersweet shishito peppers, similar to Spanish padrón peppers), crunchy lotus root, prawns and shiitake mushrooms.
Weekenders – for coffee
You’re unlikely to stumble across this speciality coffee shop by chance unless you’re driving around Kyoto, as it’s tucked away at the back of a car park in the city centre. A takeaway-only kiosk, it’s a microcosm of old-world Kyoto style, with traditional machiya house features such as sliding doors, lots of wood and an immaculate pocket-sized garden framed by bamboo.
The baristas prepare espresso-based and pour-over coffees with the utmost care, using beans from Ethiopia to Guatemala (request the latter from Finca La Sierra for a super smooth and floral cup with a sweet lychee edge). There’s an outdoor alcove for two to linger in, or take your coffee to explore Nishiki food market’s foodie corridor – look out for dried seaweed covered in sesame seeds, squidgy mochi and vitamin-rich Kyoyasai (Kyoto vegetables).
Senmonten Kyoto Gion Head Shop – for gyozas
Sit at the counter at this casual spot in the Gion district and order gyozas in batches of 10. Be warned, you will definitely keep ordering more; the golden pouches, stuffed with pork and dark green Kyoto spring onions, are super moreish and smaller than your average dumpling. Pair with a mug of beer, and practice your Japanese on the friendly staff. Make sure you take a turn down some of the surrounding streets to explore the wooden machiyas, and look out for geishas gliding gracefully past.
380-3-2-chome Kiyomotocho; 00 81 75 532 0820
Ippodo – for matcha tea
The matcha tea at this longstanding shop is the real deal – vibrant green in colour, sweet in aroma and thick in texture. Choose from various grades of tea powder to take home as a souvenir (you can try before you buy) or linger in the calming Kaboku tearoom (have fun preparing your own brew using a traditional kyusu teapot). If you have time, you can stay on to join a tea class and enjoy a good grounding in the preparation and lingo of matcha (learn the difference, for example, between tea ceremony-grade koicha tea and more everyday usucha tea).
Otsuka Arashiyama – for wagyu beef
This lunch-only garage-turned-restaurant, hidden at the end of a residential street in Arashiyama (a short train ride from Kyoto centre), specialises in wagyu beef sets. Sit on tatami mats at low wooden tables in the homely dining room and choose between cuts such as chuck top blade, wagyu sirloin and the top-grade Murasawa sirloin (a rare breed with super umami levels and a marbling of extra-sweet fat).
The queue can be three-hours long so make sure you pop your name on the list first thing on arrival in Arashiyama, giving you time to meander through the nearby bamboo forest walkway and surrounding temples before returning for lunch. Top tip: our favourite temple was the quiet Jojakko-ji, set slightly apart from the more popular ones on a moss-covered hillside studded with maple trees, pagodas and small shrines.
BEER PUB Takumiya – for craft beer
Head to this contemporary craft beer joint to mingle with local hipsters and beer lovers (opt for bar seating if there’s space). It specialises in Japanese brews. Try the city’s own Kyoto Brewing Co beers; these include a rich, chocolatey Belgian stout, Kurishio No Gotoku, and a fruity American amber with caramel notes. The bar also stocks some top-notch IPAs from nearby Nara Brewing Company; try the tropical-yet-dry Monolith SMaSH American IPA.
Specialist tour operator Inside Japan Tours provides unique insider experiences in Kyoto and across Japan; from tea ceremonies and whisky distillery tours to soba noodle-making and green tea harvesting. We recommend their guided city tour of Kyoto to track down lesser-known foodie districts, quieter temples and cherry blossom and maple trees without the crowds.
Words by Alex Crossley
Alex shares more tips on eating and drinking in Kyoto, Tokyo and beyond in our podcast...