This story isn’t going to be entirely true. “My first izakaya” was not my first izakaya. The trouble was the first time I went to an izakaya, in 2003, I didn’t know I was in an izakaya. Several more years would pass before I realized what exactly this style of dining was – what it meant to me – and why it felt like something completely different.
My first experience was at Go Japanese Restaurant on St. Marks in the heart of the East Village. Go went. It’s gone. It was gone before I realized what it was. Before I realized how it would transform how I look at Japanese food. How I would look at meals. How I look at drinking.
My next izakaya, which is now “my first izakaya”, occurred much later. Claire and I met friends at a tapas bar on 10th Avenue. As we approached we passed a narrow, dark Japanese restaurant with a huge white lantern out front. The front of the restaurant was unexpectedly painted in bright colors. It took up the entire building that houses it, yet it’s a tiny place – in a tiny building between much larger buildings on 10th Avenue in New York City. The lantern read “Izakaya Ten”. Claire said, “Oh, this is an izakaya. We should come here sometime.” I replied, “What’s an izakaya?” And there began the education that has lead me to this point.
Later that night, after a very nice dinner with friends over a couple bottles of wine, our friends’ out of town visitor, Markus, was up for another drink. We knew nothing in the area so we made the fateful decision to step into Izakaya Ten. We were transported into another world. An entirely Japanese waitstaff greeted us in Japanese. Most of the customers were Japanese. We felt like the only westerners in the place. We might have been that first night, but it was not uncommon in those early visits to see an occasional adventurous foody there to sample the goods.
An enormous octopus mural covers one wall. After dozens of subsequent nights at “i10” (our shorthand for the place) it melted into the scenery, but that first night I was mesmerized by this massive painting and the odd way its fixed into the space. I’ve subsequently learned (and forgotten) the story of how that painting came to be.
It was a Tuesday night. This, again, was fateful. On Tuesday nights Izakaya Ten knocks $20 off a bottle of shochu. I knew soju, but not shochu. The waitress explained the difference. We decided to order a bottle. She recommended iichiko. In retrospect, I understand why. It’s a gateway drug. A deliciously mild barley shochu that will open up your mind to more interesting styles.
Bottle ordered (along with some Sapporo drafts) so I texted Dean, a friend who lives nearby and works for a Japanese shipping company. And “Shochu Tuesdays” was born. I don’t remember if we ordered food that first night. If we didn’t, we did by our next visit. And then we were hooked. We’d keep a running bottle behind the bar, but it was never the same bottle on return visits – we’d always finish the left-bottle and start another. Sometimes we’d finish that and order another.
I don’t have an official record, but I believe that first year we were at i10 for shochu on Tuesdays at least 35 times. Our group grew. What started as four that first night, later became 6, 8, 10. By the time my birthday rolled around that first year, I managed to pack 30 or so people into the back room. Subsequent parties I’ve hosted in that back room have been even bigger. The room seats 24! Over time we sampled the entire menu and shochu list.
Sometimes we were the only customers there. I remember a snowy, bitter cold Tuesday night. After some early diners left we had the run of the place. Nobody else came in the whole night. And we loved it.
Sometimes things got silly.
We’d go at least three times a month. Alas, it was not a pace we could maintain. None of us lived in the neighborhood (even “nearby” Dean was a 20 minute walk and subsequently moved). We had jobs. Wednesday mornings became difficult, mostly because it was hard to leave before last call. Markus moved to New York, but has since moved away again. We take him to i10 each time he visits.
Over time things changed, as they always do. More Westerners started showing up. The nearby art galleries discovered the place and began referring their customers. And then a TV star found it. That was the tipping point. Once he started going, we couldn’t walk in on a Tuesday night and expect a table. Next thing we knew, non-Japanese waitstaff appeared. They’re nice people. They understand the menu. They get the culture. But they weren’t as warm and friendly toward us. They didn’t remember us as the stalwarts who’d come in on a snowy Tuesday night for some comfort food and a few drinks. They didn’t treat us like family. We were another table to seat. Another table to turn. We stopped going. Not cold turkey, but we looked for alternatives.
We started having Shochu Tuesdays at other izakayas around the city. We were just used to Tuesday nights. There was nothing special about Tuesdays at those other places. They were just izakayas and it just happened to be Tuesday night. I felt guilty. I felt like I was betraying i10. When we’d go back for an increasingly rare visit one of the staff would greet us friendlily and ask where we’d been. I’d look at my shoes and reply, “busy”. We’ve been busy. Busy exploring their competition. You see, even then, I didn’t understand “izakaya” culture.
Izakayas aren’t in competition. This is a niche market. These hole in the wall Japanese taverns are the most warm, inviting, enjoyable places on earth. Okay, that’s hyperbole, but the point is that these places represent a culture. They’re not businesses so much as they are miniature temples to the Japanese style of socializing with friends. Long, lingering meals full of finely prepared food, plentiful alcohol, and lots of laughter.
Once I realized this, I could look the waitress or bartender or even the owner in the eye and say we’ve been exploring other izakayas. Rather than the expected look of judgment, the immediate reply was, “Which ones?” We took the owner to one she’d never been to. A mom & pop yakitori place on 103rd & Broadway (4 miles from i10). Sun-Chan. It’s now my “local”. It’s the izakaya closest to home. We visit often.
But now we visit everywhere often. A smattering of izakayas around the city have become our haunts. We started going on other nights. Not even the Tuesday part of the name fits anymore. The shochu does. We still drink shochu. We still visit izakayas. In the East Village? We’ll opt for Uminoie. That is unless we’re hungry. Then it’s Village Yokocho or one of the Taishos if we can get a seat. Midtown East? Riki. Ariyoshi. Donburiya. East. There are others in the area. Midtown East is a treasure trove of izakayas – and one we’ve only recently begun exploring. In Brooklyn? Qoo. Bozu. Out of town? We’ll do some research. Been to one izakaya in San Diego twice! They already remember me even though I’m only there every couple years.
But my first love will always be i10. If they ever go like Go, I’ll be more than sorry. I’ll be sad. I may even cry. That’s what I think of when I think of izakaya. When we visit now it’s not the same feeling. We don’t step into that strange world of Japanese expats. We can get that elsewhere. When we step into i10 now we get a huge grin from the Japanese bartender. We get a polite greeting from the manager who has known us for years now. She’s always formal when she talks to us at the beginning of a visit, but within an hour or so she’s coming back to say hello and having a nice chat with us. You see, we were there on New Years Eve once (well more than once, but I’m telling one story). We couldn’t get a taxi at 3am when the bar closed. They let us back in to use the bathroom. We sat down with the owner and the manager for “one more”. I tended bar that night. We got home at 7am. It was the best New Years Eve I’ve ever had.