Chef and Japanophile Michael Ryan shares his guide to Tokyo’s best dining, drinking and cultural venues.
Interview by Leanne Clancey
With close to 30 trips to Japan under his belt, acclaimed regional Victorian chef Michael Ryan has become Australia’s unofficial gastronomic envoy for the country that chefs cannot help but obsess over. With his little black book crammed with dining-out gems, from high-end to low-key, Ryan is just the guide to help plot a food-fixated Tokyo jaunt.
As owner-chef of the award-winning Provenance restaurant in north-eastern Victoria, Ryan—who studied chemistry before turning to food—has gained the respect of critics and peers alike for his elevation of Victorian produce and masterful command of flavour. Housed in a 19th-century former bank in Beechworth’s main street, Provenance has drawn consistent acclaim as one of Australia’s top regional dining destinations since opening in 2008, with Ryan’s reverence for Japanese cuisine increasingly evident in his menus over the years.
Adelaide-born Ryan first visited Japan in 1996, in his pre-chef days, and soon formed a twice-yearly habit of returning, driven by a hunger for a deeper understanding of Japanese cuisine and culture. “It drew me back. It just gets stuck in your head,” he says, recalling his second visit, 10 years later, which saw him drag wife Jeanette and their then three-year-old daughter around to 24 restaurants in two weeks.
The now decades-long affair has led him to host food tours in Japan and even publish a book about Tokyo’s famed food culture. Co-authored with Tasmanian chef and photographer Luke Burgess, Ryan’s 2019 book Only in Tokyo: Two chefs, 24 hours, the ultimate food city charts the pair’s culinary adventures through the capital, sharing tales about the people and places that make Tokyo one of the world’s most perennially thrilling food destinations.
So what is it that makes Tokyo so compelling for chefs, in particular? For Ryan, it’s a combination of factors. “The incredible quality, variety and sheer density of great restaurants makes Tokyo exciting for anyone who loves food,” he explains, “but for chefs specifically, it’s that so many Tokyo restaurants look like the ultimate “chef” restaurant.” And by that he means a venue that is chef-run, with just a handful of seats, offering a small set menu. “For chefs, that kind of simplicity and singular focus is the dream,” he says.
Ryan’s travels have provided endless inspiration for his cooking—with each trip revealing “a new technique, a new dish, a new ingredient”—and for the way he approaches business. “The most important thing I have learned from Japan is to do things on my own terms,” he explains.
“The places I really love are the small, idiosyncratic venues run by people with a strong, independent, and often unique concept of what they want to offer. Sometimes this leads me to some very strange places.”
Eating out, Ryan has uncovered countless gems over the years, many of which he enjoys returning to, and says he is never lacking for new places to discover. Comprising a mix of classics and newcomers, this guide is designed to inspire culinary adventures for all moods and occasions—from traditional to envelope-pushing, glam to modest, morning to (late) night.
What’s the very first thing you like to do when you arrive in Tokyo?
Yakitori is usually one of the first meals I seek out, then I’ll head to one of my (many) favourite cocktail bars. I might start with all the sticks at Yakitori Toriyoshi in Naka-Meguro, followed by a Martinez at Bar Trench in Shibuya.
What should visitors know about dining out in Tokyo?
Restaurants work on their own terms far more in Japan. If what they’re offering doesn’t suit you, don’t ask for modifications, just find something else. The concept of saying “no” to a customer is very troubling for the Japanese.
Tokyo restaurants can be notoriously difficult to secure a table at. What’s the secret?
There is no easy answer here, sadly. Perseverance and luck can certainly help, as can a good concierge at a top-tier hotel, but this is not always guaranteed. Plan ahead as much as you can but prepare yourself to miss out; you won’t get every booking you want but in a city like Tokyo there’s always another (equally great) option.
Any helpful etiquette tips when dining out?
Be on time. In fact, aim to be early, as finding places can often be problematic in Tokyo. Do an image search of the restaurant’s facade beforehand and screenshot it so that you have some idea of what to look for.
Favourite spots for breakfast?
Tokyo is a city slow to wake up so an Australian-style cafe breakfast is rare here, but a traditional Japanese breakfast is still my favourite. I recently stayed at newly renovated hotel The Okura and its Japanese breakfast is very good, served in a room that makes you feel like you are dining in the garden. Breakfast bookings are open to non-hotel guests too.
Somewhere low-key and traditional?
Most traditional-style restaurants will be open at lunchtime—think places that specialise in sushi, ramen, soba, udon and tempura. The Japanese have elevated crumbed pork to an art form, so I always seek out some good tonkatsu at lunchtime. Butagumi in Nishiazabu and Katsukura Shinjuku Takashimaya in Shinjuku are a couple of favourites.
How about for an elegant, multi-course dinner?
I love Florilège in Shibuya for its creative Japanese-accented French cuisine and wonderfully theatrical dining experience; Den for the one of the most generous, fun and delicious meals in Tokyo; and Sezanne at the Four Seasons in Otemachi, where British chef Daniel Calvert’s precisely cooked, thoughtfully restrained dishes remind you just how good a set menu can be.
Best spots to immerse in Tokyo’s nightlife?
While I’m not a nightclub person, I am most definitely a bar person, and Tokyo has some of my favourite bars in the world. Memento Mori is a cocktail bar focusing on cacao, which might sound limiting, yet is anything but; some of the best cocktails of my recent trip were had at this bar. Bar Dice in Ginza gets my vote for a vintage negroni, made from Campari and vermouth that date back to the 1960s. Grandfather’s in Shibuya is another favourite; it’s smoky inside, the cocktails aren’t great, and the service can be surly, but it’s just so much fun—with excellent tunes too.
Favourite places to experience art and culture?
I love the Nezu Museum for its Asian antiquities and secret garden, which is a welcome retreat in the heart of the bustling Omotesando district. Any exhibitions at teamLab Planets [an immersive museum featuring works by international art collective teamLab that explore the intersection of art, science, tech and nature], are always a good choice. I do also love the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum in Meguro, which is housed in a stunning 1933-built Art Deco mansion (a former imperial residence), surrounded by peaceful gardens.
Can you share something surprising about Tokyo?
It may seem incongruous, but Tokyo now has what must be the best pizza restaurants anywhere, run by chefs with a (typically Japanese) obsessive attention to detail and single-minded vision. My favourites include Pizza Studio Tamaki in Minato and Pizza Bar on the 38th, set on the 38th floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Nihonbashi.
Any other tips for those on a foodie junket?
Tokyo is a big city, and while transport is excellent, it does take time to get from one area to the next. I always think it is best to explore your more immediate area, otherwise you’ll spend half your time commuting. If you take the time to look you will always find something nearby that may be just as good as that place you heard about on the other side of the city.
When not hosting Japan tours, Michael Ryan can be found at his award-winning Beechworth restaurant.