Japanese cuisine involves a lot more than just sushi and bento boxes, especially in a cosmopolitan city like Toronto. In recent years, and to much fanfare, the city has seen the rise of izakayas — traditional Japanese pubs frequented by patrons looking to unwind, snack on tapas, and sip sake after a long work day. The relaxed atmosphere, speedy service, and shareable small plates make them perfect for your next group outing, so gather your most adventurous foodie friends and loosen your collar. The izakaya experience at these three spots is as authentic as you’ll get without booking a flight to Tokyo.
Had a rough day? The atmosphere at this popular izakaya at Church and Gerrard Streets is so infectiously cheerful that you’ll forget your troubles as soon as you step through the door. At Guu Izakaya, staff will shout “irasshaimase!” at the top of their lungs as you enter, but don’t be alarmed – it’s their famous greeting, meaning “welcome.” Grab a spot at one of the communal tables and start with three samurai, a trio of sake shooters to share with your pals. Raise a toast with a hearty kanpai! (literally, “dry cup”) and let the procession of small, classic Japanese dishes begin. Don’t miss the delicate masterpiece that is maguro tataki, buttery seared tuna with sweet ponzu sauce and the crunch of garlic chips. The more substantial yakiudon of thick noodles pan-fried with beef and mushrooms will satisfy those with a healthy appetite. You’ll share glances and knowing smiles across the table, because you’ll all be thinking the same thing: This place is guu’d.
So maybe your group get-together is long overdue, and you have some serious catching up to do on new jobs and upcoming vacation plans. Kingyo Izakaya in the heart of Cabbagetown offers the izakaya experience in a slightly quieter setting, ideal for long conversations with your pals. This is Japanese tapas at its finest. Their extensive drink list of sake, shochu, beer, and cocktails will satisfy everyone’s tastes, as you take in the surroundings of warm wood and festive goldfish motifs. Get lost in the flashing lights of the pachinko machines on the walls, as you try to resist gulping down a lip-smacking Moscow mule made with their fresh, house-made ginger soda. The lovers of traditional Japanese cuisine in your group will appreciate the beautifully-presented sashimi platter, and the legendary, curry-flavored Kinchan chicken wings will satisfy … well, everybody.
You may not have heard of Koyoi, but this unassuming establishment tucked away on Irwin Avenue offers an authentic taste of Japan in a polished yet casual setting of clean, white walls adorned with sake bottles. When you arrive to crowds of mostly Japanese clientele, you’ll know it’s the real deal. Instead of sushi, you’ll find a menu focused on popular izakaya favorites at reasonable prices (don’t forget to ask about the daily specials). The Koyoi salad, an enticing dish of mixed textures and flavors, will be a winner among the vegetarians in your crew, and the carnivores will swoon over the crispy karaage (deep-fried chicken). Polish off your meal with black sesame ice cream for that sweet finish. And on warm summer nights, snag a seat on the front patio: a perfect setting for sharing ice-cold Sapporo.