Irasshaimase! If this greeting sounds familiar, there is a chance you may have stumbled into a Japanese restaurant at some point. Every Japanese dining experience will vary slightly — especially if it happens to take place 5,280 feet above sea level. Even if you are the type of diner who feels well-versed in Japanese customs and frequently opts for “omakase,” there is still a possibility you may not be acquainted with izakayas. So, what exactly is an izakaya?
Unlike more popular versions of Japanese restaurants which focus on sushi, teppanyaki, or noodle-based dishes, izakayas offer a more casual environment where patrons may order a variety of small plates to share over drinks. The kanji—or characters—which make up the word izakaya (居酒屋), mean “stay,” “alcohol,” and “shop/room.” Therefore, an izakaya is quite literally a place to hang out while you order an assortment of food and drinks over time. In Japan, it is more common to visit a traditional izakaya than a sushi bar. However, here in the Mile High City, izakayas are still surprisingly scarce. Interested in trying one of these Japanese-style pubs for yourself? Let us help you decide where to go.
Tip: Surrender your palate and order “omakase,” which essentially translates to “I’ll leave it up to you.”
Where: 1487A S Pearl St., Denver
The Lowdown: Connoisseurs of premium raw fish have regarded Sushi Den on Old South Pearl Street as one of Denver’s premier locations for satisfying sushi cravings since 1984. Located next door to Sushi Den, is the sister restaurant, Izakaya Den, which offers the same undeviatingly fresh sushi selections along with an impressive assortment of traditional and globally-inspired small plates. Izakaya Den’s aesthetic is undeniably enchanting, having been the recipient of an American Architecture award for its impeccable ambiance. The artistic balance of contemporary and traditional Japanese design is also reflected in the food. Everything that comes out of Izakaya Den’s kitchen is executed with the same meticulousness as the exquisite dishes from the sushi bar, with some of their most flavorsome menu offerings being those with a touch of international flair.
Try the fresh fish of the day along with wagyu kinpira ($14) — beef with a salad of burdock root, carrot, and spicy sesame oil —or grilled aburi pork belly ($13) with yuzu kosho, scallion and sesame seed.
Where: 1560 Boulder St., Denver
The Lowdown: If variety is what attracted you to the idea of Japanese pub-style dining, look no further than LoHi’s Mizu Izakaya. This bold, spacious izakaya gives diners the option of stylish bar seating, dining room tables, seats at the sushi bar, or a cozier, lounge-like environment. The expansive menu caters to those seeking more traditional izakaya offerings as well as diners who may be less inclined to escape their comfort zone in the case of Japanese cuisine. Mizu Izakaya has a little bit of everything—a full sushi bar, traditional appetizers, kushiyaki (meat, seafood, or vegetables which have been skewered and cooked over a charcoal grill), agemono and yakimono (fried and grilled dishes), noodles (including ramen, soba, and udon), and even entree-style plates. If this plethora of options feels overwhelming, guests are encouraged to experience the omakase room, where they may entrust the chef to guide their culinary experience. Ordering for yourself? Don’t miss the miso black cod ($25).
While the food at Mizu Izakaya certainly demands attention, the heart of the restaurant is in the bar, which offers a substantial selection of Japanese whisky and sake. After hours, Mizu Izakaya’s bar transforms into Bar Ginza, where patrons may enjoy an exclusive late-night menu and happy hour along with creative craft cocktails.
Where: 3053 Brighton Blvd, Denver
The Lowdown: Tucked away in the Industry Building in Denver’s River North Arts District is a sleek, split-level izakaya and sister restaurant to LoHi’s Sushi Ronin. Alongside the elaborately presented, high-quality cuts of fish diners have come to expect from the Ronin concepts, Izakaya Ronin offers a selection of warm and cold small plates, salads, tempura, noodles and soup. One of the highlights of this effortlessly cool location is the downstairs speakeasy within a repurposed boiler room where guests may truly relax in an edgy, unpretentious pub-like atmosphere. An exceptional assemblage of Japanese whisky is presented on a chic circular shelf behind the bar for guests to select and sip alongside smaller dishes or a hearty bowl of ramen until midnight or 1 a.m. The takoyaki ($6) (Japanese octopus fritters) and adobo karaage ($8) (marinated fried chicken) are not to be missed, along with the remarkably satisfying, umami-abundant Laman tonkatsu ramen ($13) with a rich pork broth, fried chicharron and chile crisp.
Where: 1221 Spruce St., Boulder
The Lowdown: No shoes, no sushi, no problem. Boulder’s Izakaya Amu may be the smallest izakaya on the list, however, what it lacks in size, it makes up for in flavor and authenticity. The restaurant itself has a distinctly intimate vibe with simple yet thoughtful decor throughout. Whether you are new to Japanese cuisine or have a sentimental relationship with dishes like okonomiyaki (savory Japanese pancake) or chawanmushi (steamed egg custard), Amu is sure to impress. The knowledgable staff is eager to guide you through the menu or take full reign over your dining experience by carefully selecting your dishes and drink pairings. Returning guests may even buy their own bottle of shochu (Japanese distilled liquor) or sake which the staff will label and keep stored for you to enjoy during future visits. With only 11 seats at the counter, one hightop table in the front and a 14-seat tearoom in the back, dining at Amu may require a little patience and planning. Daily specials consistently highlight the freshest seafood selections, fusional items from the kitchen, and surprisingly satisfying housemade desserts. Not to be missed: nasu yuzu miso dengaku — Japanese eggplant in a miso yuzu sauce.