Searching for a restaurant in Kyoto can be intimidating and/or overwhelming. Here are a few places that I have wandered into by myself, without prior reservations. They are also appropriate for couples and small groups. These restaurants are not famous, but they are authentic and very reasonable – especially considering the quality and quantity of the food served.
On Friday and Saturday nights, or during peak times (cherry blossom season, during Gion Matsuri, etc.), it is advisable to make reservations in advance, if possible. That said, when I am by myself, I tend to eat a bit early and have never had trouble getting a seat.
OBANZAI NA-NO-HANA is a tiny establishment on Gokomachi-dori (one street over from the Teramachi covered arcade) that specializes in ‘obanzai’. I love the ‘Nan-no-hana’ lunch set (1600 yen). On my last visit, the set included four seasonal dishes, choice of soy milk gratin or namafu dengaku (grilled blocks of wheat/rice gluten topped with sweet miso sauce), mixed tempura, rice, miso soup, pickles, and a mini dessert. (I had the namafu – bottom left photo). For dinner, have the Na-no-Hana Irodori Obanzai Set with rice & soup (3140 yen). Na-no-Hana is casual, non-smoking, but is not for those with special food requirements. They are closed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and once or twice a month on Monday.
OMOYA is housed in a lovely, traditional machiya (long, narrow, traditional Kyoto home). They serve Japanese sweets and creative Japanese cuisine. They have an extensive menu but their specialty, for lunch or dinner, is the Gohan Plate – a selection of seasonal delicacies served with rice and miso soup for under 2000 yen – a fantastic deal! They have table and tatami seating in a casual environment. A little English is spoken.
BUDO-YA TSK is a tiny restaurant/bar along Kawaramachi-dori, about 500 meters south of Shijo-dori. Three friendly, young Japanese men serve their patrons delicious pastas, risotto, and a variety of creative side dishes. There is bar counter seating and a couple of tables. The clientele is mostly local, but they do have an English menu.
CAFE MAR is a hard to find gem located on the 8th floor of a nondescript building along Kawaramachi-dori, close to Gojo-dori. Half of the cafe consists of a huge outdoor patio with a fantastic bird’s eye view of the Kamogawa and the Higashiyama mountains. They serve burgers, pasta, curry, and a tasty selection of desserts. This cafe is especially popular with young women.
CAFE OPAL is a unique dining spot located down a long, narrow alley between Gion and Miyagawacho. Choose at a table, or sit at the counter, in a uniquely renovated 80-year-old machiya. The cafe is run by a friendly couple who speaks some English. Stop by for a pre/post dinner drink, coffee/tea, or something from their simple menu. For more information, check out this photo story I did for JapanTravel.com a few years ago.
HASHIBA is Kodaiji Temple’s official restaurant. It is hidden upstairs beside Kodaiji’s small museum along Nene-no-michi. Their yuba/tofu set meals are amazing and a great value. Hashiba has a casual atmosphere. The staff is friendly and there is an English menu. Be aware, however, the last order is around 7:30/8:00pm, depending on the time of year.
These are only a handful of choices – among thousands. I suggest that you wander around Kyoto and find some favorites of your own.
NOTE: What is Obanzai? It is ‘homestyle’ cooking focused on simply prepared vegetables, tofu, and fish (although meat is also used). Most of the ingredients are grown and/or produced in Kyoto.