The back streets of Japanese cities are filled with tiny eateries, each specialising in different dishes. They’re the inspiration for travellers who have gone home to create their own version of Japanese culture with ramen and yakitori bars, sushi and teppanyaki restaurants, shabu-shabu and izakaya popping up around the world, the latter being one of the last to reach our shores.
The Japanese word “izakaya” is two words morphed together, meaning ‘to stay in a sake shop’. Traditionally, they were bars where men stopped on their way home from work for a drink and a little food to accompany it.
Reaching world audiences in 1962 when Robert F. Kennedy ate at a Tokyo izakaya during a meeting with Japanese labour leaders, izakaya are more well-known around the world. Now, izakayas are seen as simple and unpretentious little Japanese-styled eateries which offer inexpensive, informal dining to accompany whiskey, sake and Japanese beer.
Typical izakaya dishes include chicken karaage, yakitori, edamame, tempura, grilled fish, french fries, sashimi, sushi, gyoza, ebi-mayo (fried shrimp with mayo), nabe (Japanese hotpot) and salads.
On the Gold Coast we have our own take on izakaya, from loosely traditional to vegan. While we love the social aspect of shared dining and the fun nature of the izakaya, besides that there’s no real definition of what makes ‘new izakaya’ in a different country with vastly different traditions, eating and drinking styles. What we’re certain of is that each izakaya on the Gold Coast seeks its own audience.
Izakaya You Shop 10/9 Beach Rd, Surfers Paradise Ph: 07 5526 7266
Open since 1994, You Japanese (Izakaya You to locals) is one of our most established izakaya on the coast. It’s a family-run traditional izakaya serving up hot pots and barbeque wagyu beef, sashimi and sake. The chef travels to Gold Coast airport every day to collect fresh fish flown in from Sydney and Melbourne suppliers, so you can be sure that the sashimi here is of the highest quality.
Head Chef Satoshi, the father of the family, studied for ten years as a chef in Japan and has been highly awarded and approved by the ministry of labour as a Culinary Technician making him a nationally qualified cooking lecturer, an award bestowed on the Dux of the examinee.
Cafoo Izakaya 6 Fifth Avenue, Palm Beach Ph: 07 5525 6759
With burnt timber and black painted walls, driftwood chandeliers and iron lanterns, Chef Masahiko Kaneko and his wife Tatako have opened up this atmospheric space specialising in seafood and yakitori skewers. Chef Masa operated his own izakaya in Shizuoka, Japan for 13 years before emigrating to work in the Sofitel, Palazzo Versace, O-Sushi and Reef Seafood.
It’s the blend of old and new that’s intriguing at Cafoo Izakaya. Alongside his seafood specialties and traditional menu items, Chef Masa has made some interesting fusion additions to appeal to Gold Coast diners. Like any meal at a new restaurant, we’d start with our known [seafood] favourites, order some rare traditional dishes we haven’t tried, and then branch out to a couple of fusion dishes. There’s an interesting wine list and the collection of Japanese whiskies, sakes, shochu and umeshu plum wines needs suitable investigation. With sake flights and Japanese-style cocktails, such as the house-made ‘sakegria’ served by the jug, Cafoo has all the ingredients for a great party.
Etsu Izakaya 2440 Gold Coast Hwy, Mermaid Beach Ph: 07 5526 0944
The most upmarket of our izakaya, Etsu downplays its presence with a fortress-like wooden door and red lantern. Inside though, we’re enveloped in the barrel of Hokusai’s Great Wave, a tunnel-like cavern traversed by a long bar, a giant bonsai flanking its side wall. The restaurant opens up, story-like, into a satirical Japanese comic book mural by local artist Mark Wilson.
Atmospheric? Yes, but the food is excellent: Salmon and kingfish tatake laced with seaweed and pickled cucumber, Pork gyoza, ‘Omakase’ mixed tempura with light crunchy batter, Crunchy softshell crab and Amiyaki Wagyu steak. It’s beautifully rendered classic izakaya fare for the modern palate paired with a good range of Japanese drinks. There’s sparkling sake to accompany your sashimi, beer to team with tempura, shochu and Japanese-inspired cocktails.
Izakaya Ichi 42 Nerang St, Southport Ph: 07 5564 0190
In the international student heartland of Southport, Izakaya Ichi is a cool place to chill and hang out. Fairy lights beckon locals and hospitality workers eager to have some sustenance after work. There’s even convenient transport, as the bar is situated close to the Southport Q:Link station.
Each table has its own iPad with an easy to read illustrated menu app which you use to place an order from the extensive well-priced menu of well-priced izakaya favourites: sushi, sashimi, salad, fried and grilled dishes as well as donburi, rice and udon dishes, and dessert. Lunch also includes bento boxes. The OMG dish setting Instagram on fire is the Icy Snow Flake dessert, a huge bowl of shaved fresh milk ice with condensed milk added, in eight flavours including Green Tea, Sweet Red Bean, Mango, Strawberry, Coffee and Chocolate.
Oi Izakaya 4/30 James St, Burleigh Heads Ph: 07 3129 0628
Oi Izakaya is testament to co-owners Stephen Thompson and Troy O’Shea’s love of Japanese food. It’s a dimly lit atmospheric izakaya, with burned wood interior and noren framing each doorway. Running lengthwise along the arcade, Oi’s bar is placed at one end, its open-plan kitchen and chef’s bar at the other.
Japanese-born Head Chef Ran Kubota, whose father owns a Michelin star restaurant in Hiroshima, has constructed a menu of dishes to share: ‘Otsumami’ or snacks, ‘Osyokuji’ (larger plates which are also shared), Okonomiyaki (a pancake-like dish) and Yakisoba, a traditional noodle dish used to soak up alcohol at the end of the evening, with dessert if you can fit it in! Oi Izakaya’s well-stocked bar, brimming with whisky, sake, local spirits and Suntory beer on tap also boasts delicious cocktails. We would return to savour them both again, imagining that we were really in the back streets of Tokyo.
Project Tokyo 90 Markeri St, Mermaid Waters Ph: 07 5526 1075
The international experience of Project Tokyo’s owners, Franz Zdesar and Executive Chef Geoff Anstee, flows over into both their food and service with a polished, ‘invested’ European-style feel. With a modern Japanese-inspired range of share dishes, the menu provides headings to help us choose: Snacks and starters, Signature dishes, Gyoza, Tempura, Char grill, Nigiri and sashimi, Sushi rolls and Sweets, with several Omakase Set Menus leaving the food and drink selection up to the chef.
Using the finest local ingredients in each dish, from sashimi to meat cooked over the grill, food is handled and presented with loving care and attention. It’s not just about presentation, but about taste – clever combinations, an accent of chilli, spice or pickle, lashings of homemade dressing. From its Japanese origins, the food is transported into a modern milieu: Kingfish sashimi topped with yuzu, soy, coriander and a little jalapeno to grab our attention; Moreton Bay bug and scallop tempura presented lengthwise along the plate and served with rich yuzu truffle mayo.
From the bar, there’s not only sake, umeshi and a few Japanese spirits on offer but, moving away from classics, there’s also a range of Japanese-inspired cocktails and world wines chosen to complement the food, together with the satisfying Orion beer from Okinawa on tap and Sapporo by the bottle.
Izakaya Midori 7/ 50 Woodland Drive, Reedy Creek Ph: 07 5645 6625
Midori (meaning ‘green’ in Japanese) is the Gold Coast’s first plant-based Japanese restaurant, our first and only vegan izakaya. Chef Fumiyoshi Iwasaki has worked in two of our most respected Japanese restaurants, Kiyomi at The Star and Yamagen, before becoming vegan and taking the chance to open a plant-based restaurant with partners.
The menu carries many Japanese favourites, from edamame (including a smoked version) to gyoza, and sushi to curries. It’s not all traditional fare though, the chef putting his own vegan spin on well-known dishes and creating original new ones. Amongst other spectacular-looking dishes, taking pride of place is the signature Midori Ramen, a deep rich green plant-based soup containing ramen and vegan pork mince. It’s not only deliciously addictive but also Insta-worthy.
Kemuri 3/124 Pappas Way Carrara Ph: 0451 133 996
Owned and operated by sommelier Hiroyuki Okubo (ex-Head Sommelier at Paper Daisy and the Hilton Group) and his French-trained wife, Chef Yuki, Kemuri serves a menu of izakaya dishes in its tiny restaurant. Hiro’s specialty is fine sake and wine, paired with his wife’s exceptional food.
Good things come in small parcels at Kemuri. The bao buns, handmade each morning by Yuki, are soft and fluffy, their softshell crab filling crunchy, with a tang of homemade chipotle mayo – the perfect antithesis of texture! Angel Wings gyoza, too, are a specialty, made by a special technique used in some specialty gyoza shops in Japan. The dumplings are joined by a fine biscuit-like layer that snaps as we bite it. Karaage is made from free-range chicken – the best we’ve had.
On the last Monday of every month, Kemuri transforms into an izakaya, serving an omakase menu of eight courses, available paired with matching fine wine and sake.
Izakaya Umakamon, 40 – 42 Hanlon St., Surfers Paradise Ph: 07 5527 6723
Seigo Hakata, former Head Chef and manager of JFX, opened Izakaya Umakamon in 2018. This tiny 22-seat restaurant in the heart of ‘party central’ Surfers Paradise is a haven for students, local business people and those seeking a good time. With well priced drinks including cocktails and excellent Japanese-style comfort dishes, many being Chef Seigo’s own version, Umakamon is a little gem.
Little Itoshin 6/110 Mountain View Ave, Miami
Izakaya or restaurant? Little Itoshin could be both. Drawing inspiration both former venues of from his parents’ restaurant, Itoshin (one of our first izakaya), owner/chef Hibiki Ito has opened his own restaurant high on the hill in Miami.
Little Itoshin, open for lunch and dinner, is a modern take on a Japanese diner, adapting itself to modern dining patterns and plating and fully licensed. What all three restaurants share is the quality of their food: the freshest sashimi grade fish straight from the trawlers, (their oysters in particular are famous), plus hot and cold dishes made to order with precision and finesse. Nothing compares to excellence.