Izakaya, DC Style
Name: Daikaya Izakaya
Address: 705 6th St NW, Washington, DC 20001
Phone: (202) 589-1600
In 2002 I left Washington, DC for the foodie heaven that is NYC. Upon discovering izakayas in NYC (2005, Go on St. Mark’s) I remember thinking “this kind of place would never work in DC”. Well, it took more than a decade, but I am finally wrong. I travel to DC 2-3 times per year for work and on those occasions I resign myself to chain restaurants and brew pubs, but on a recent visit for a family wedding, I made extra time to check out their izakaya scene (there are 2-5 depending on your definition). With only one free dinner in town, I settled on Daikaya based on yelp reviews, Open Table booking options (I hate calling for reservations), and a hunch.
In the most unlikely of places, Daikaya sits atop an eponymous ramen shop, across the street from the city’s basketball-hockey arena. Through the door marked simply “izakaya” (in English with no accompanying aki-chochin lantern) you climb a narrow staircase to a large open space.
Warm, comfortable, stylish, with hidden odes to anime fans, you’re immediately struck by how Japanese and how Brooklyn this space manages to be simultaneously. The requisite hand drawn “specials” lists dot the large bar, but aren’t really specials, as you’ll often find in izakayas with a bent toward western customers. Izakaya Ten, where my obsession began, does the same thing with wooden specials placards that don’t actually represent what’s on special.
The large bar dominates the center of the space, with tables and booths clustered fore and aft. Without some custom configuration you’re not likely to fit more than 8 people at a table or booth, but that should accommodate the vast majority of parties. Unlike most traditional izakayas where the bar is where it’s at, I’d recommend grabbing a table at Daikaya since the bar is only for serving drinks – no food prep occurs there.
This is the one area where I had to readjust my NYC izakaya expectations and understand that DC doesn’t have nearly the distribution network for Japanese alcohol that is available in the Big Apple. It may also be a case of “know your audience” as the draft beer menu was completely American craft beers – not a Japanese brand or even a Japanese style American craft beer in sight. I was hoping for at least one tap dedicated to Sapporo (best selling Japanese beer in the US) or Asahi (best selling beer in Japan). [note: their online menu shows Sapporo draft, but it was not on the in-house menu].
The shochu list is decent, but the pricing is confusing. Towari, which is a higher end (albeit not premium) all-soba shochu, is nearly half the price of some of the other everyday shochus available (pricing on their website does not reflect the pricing we saw in-house). Satsuma Shiranami was the only sweet potato shochu available, which is a shame, because the menu cries “imojochu okudasai!”
There’s also an extensive sake list, a number of Japanese whiskeys, and a full bar of American and European spirits (again, know your audience).
This is where Daikaya gets a completely unreserved “highly recommended” and means that I’ll be back whenever I’m able. While most of the menu is not traditional izakaya fare, it is all creative and virtually everything we tried (we ate more than half the menu thanks to being a party of 5). From the otsumami (small bites) menu I’d highly recommend the edamame (when do I EVER do that?), the baked oysters, the house pickles, and the fried garlic.
This is not just any fried garlic. This is garlic prepped for hours down in the ramen shop’s pork fat heaven before being grilled and served with pickled garlic. We ordered this twice and only concern over our collective breath for the next day’s wedding festivities kept us from going for a 3rd or 4th round.
The rest of the menu is full of slightly larger dishes sorted as green things, fish things, skewers, meat things, and rice and noodles. From these menus I’d recommend the grilled avocado, roasted eggplant, chilled cucumber, crab croquettes, miso saba, beef tenderloin, quail, pork and brussels sprouts skewer, “hambagu”, chicken kara-age, abura-miso onigiri (pork and miso rice ball), and the mentaiko spaghetti. As I said, the food is the star. We tried any number of dishes beyond this including most of the daily specials, which I won’t even tempt you with because you’ll salivate over things that aren’t even available.
The Verdict: Highly Recommended
Make a reservation. Now. This place is great and needs both attention and customers. They aren’t hurting by the crowd that was there on a Saturday night (and the line out the door of the ramen shop downstairs), but it’s really a special experience. If you’re in DC, there’s no longer any reason to end up at Applebees.