There’s nothing new about top restaurants in Japan creating hoops to keep tourists out. At the same time, there have never been more hoops.
If you know the restaurant scene in Japan, you know that if you’re a traveller from outside the country, many sought after restaurants won’t deal with you directly, unless you happen to speak Japanese. These places don’t take online reservations, they have limited phone hours and if you call and say “hello”, it may be the last thing you hear before hanging up.
For years, the savvy tip for this little conundrum has been to ask the hotel concierge call to book precious reservations for you. Even months before your stay, you could submit your requests and secure coveted seats at places that fill up months in advance. The swankier the hotel, the more often this worked out. For some, staying at a fancy hotel was a down payment on securing a difficult dining reservation.
This is still your best hard to get reservation bet, but some celebrated chefs are rebelling against it…
According to a brilliant article from Eater, even that concierge method has become too mainstream, and a “members only” policy is taking over at more top spots than ever. Yep, even if a table or seat is available, it may not be available to you.
That leads to the first question: how can a public restaurant keep people out? It turns out, it’s not nearly as sinister as it sounds, but it’s pretty easy.
The simplest answer: insisting that anyone who wants a reservation must first come as a guest of a regular diner, or via recommendation. If you’re someone living in New York, or anywhere else on the face of the planet outside of Northern Asia the chances of that being realistic are very low. The old hotel concierge trick? That’s gone in some cases, depending where you’re trying to go.
Don’t worry, Sukiyabashi Jiro will still take your call, they live on tourist bucks these days after the viral fame of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”.
So, why? Tradition, custom and doing things “the right way” are staples of Japanese culture, and protecting the integrity of a dining experience for frequent local guests is often the most common answer dished out by top chefs. It’s not like they need the extra foot traffic tourists bring, no matter how much the tourists want in.
If you have a local who comes in regularly and enjoys the serenity and orchestral timing of a great sushi experience, you wouldn’t want to ruin it with tourists who haven’t read the necessary etiquette guides for what’s culturally acceptable or expected during something as special as an omakase meal. A loud tourist taking business calls and dunking rice into soy sauce during a special sushi meal (never ok, by the way) in between instagram snaps would simply ruin the continuity. It’s not as sinister as it feels.
While this insider policy applies to many restaurants, it’s certainly not all.
There’s a trend in sushi culture and other noted Japanese styles from ramen to yakitori, where chefs are breaking from tradition. Some even cater to foreign guests, while maintaining authentic standards of food, just without all the tradition in the delivery experience. Some of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka’s best restaurants absolutely do take online reservations and others will take a reservation in English over the phone.
If you want in on some of Tokyo’s hardest reservations, you’re going to need to get resourceful. That may or may not mean paying locals or a kind friend who speaks Japanese rather than hotel concierge services to make the reservation for you. A little brushing up on your basic Japanese language skills certainly wouldn’t hurt either. If you were wondering whether you really needed to make super early reservations, you’ve got your answer, and some hurdles to chew in the meantime.