1 Chome-7-７ Kabukicho, Shinjuku
Much of the dining scene in Tokyo is a measured, civilized, indoor-voices only affair. Robot is the opposite. Located down a flight of steps in the heart of busy, Technicolor Shinjuku, this dinner-meets-dance-performance rivals the best of Las Vegas. Inside, the music pounds, the neon lights flicker, and the dancers—in their outlandish, elaborate costumes—move around the stage, acting out a futuristic cabaret. Eating at Robot is more an experience in snacking than a full meal. Yes, there are sushi bento boxes and some meat dishes, but honestly, a bowl of popcorn and a Japanese beer is the way to go as you watch the robots battle it out to the grand finale.
Down a street that looks like a movie set of Old Tokyo, and with no sign indicating its presence, Ishikawa is a subtle gem specializing in the traditional multicourse kaiseki dining tradition. The restaurant is divided between small rooms and a kitchen-side counter. If you get one of the rooms, it’ll be just you and your kimono-clad server—as private an experience as you’ll ever find (but a seat at the counter will allow you to witness the knifework and alchemy taking place at the hands of chef Ishikawa). In keeping with kaiseki tradition, dinner consists of a progression of small plates, including ingredients like snow crab, scallops, and signature rice dishes prepared tableside by the chef himself. An impressive selection of sakes and wines rounds out the experience.
Japan may be synonymous with both sushi and ramen, but what you really need to try is the tempura. Specifically, the tempura at Tenko. A miniature restaurant (and former geisha house) run by two generations of the same family, it’s the kind of place where the chef’s mother will pour your green tea as soon as you walk in. Sit cross-legged at the bar and watch the chef individually fry each piece of fish in light, silky, pale tempura batter. Then enjoy every single bite.
New York Grill
You already know about this place. Here’s how you do it: Make a reservation well in advance because, let’s be honest, you want a table by the window. When you arrive, order a Matured-Fashioned, which is the Grill’s optimized version of an old-fashioned, although in this case the whiskey is Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, the bitters are a resurrected formula from more than a century ago, and the sugar is wasanbon, the highest grade of Japanese sugar, made only on Shikoku island. Then order a classic Caesar salad, followed by either a Kagoshima Satsuma sirloin or, if you really feel like splashing out, the Kobe sirloin. Add the duck fat potatoes and the mixed mushrooms, a bottle of one of the 1,800 (mostly American) wines the Grill keeps in its cellar, and finish with a Kougyoko apple pie that will blow the doors off any state-fair winner.
31 Nakazatocho, Shinjuku-ku
Yes, you want to get a hamburger in Tokyo, particularly if Eliot Bergman is making it. Born and raised in New York, Bergman is a graphic designer by day and a Tokyo hamburger purveyor by night. His restaurant, Martiniburger, is his attempt to bring a little of NYC to Japan’s megalopolis. Everything is made on-site, from the freshly baked buns to the house-ground beef. The standard offering, the Martiniburger, is a beef patty on an English muffin served with béarnaise sauce. It will blow you away, but don’t let that stop you from exploring the rest of the burger menu, which includes versions named after New York neighborhoods, including the Bronx (chili and cheese), the 6th Street (spicy curry, onions, coriander), and the Long Beach (salmon, avocado, tartar sauce). Finish with a house-made egg cream, and then remind yourself you’re still in Tokyo.