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Sunnyvale’s Secret Japanese Whisky Bar Serves Killer Late-Night Karaage

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Illustration: a man shovels scallops into his mouth while sitting at an elegant bar. On the counter are tidy lobster sandwiches and fizzy cocktails in highball glasses.
Nokori is a Japanese whisky highball bar hidden inside Sunnyvale’s TETRA Hotel. (Thien Pham)

The Midnight Diners is a regular collaboration between KQED food editor Luke Tsai and graphic novelist Thien Pham. Follow them each week as they explore the hot pot restaurants, taco carts and 24-hour casino buffets that make up the Bay Area’s after-hours dining scene.

Here in the Bay Area, the search for late-night food is mostly a matter of excavating the unexpected gems that are hiding in plain sight.

To wit: In order to get to Nokori, an elegant Japanese whisky bar in Sunnyvale that most Sunnyvaleans haven’t even heard of, you first have to navigate the city’s maze of identical high-tech office parks. Sandwiched between a couple of these anonymous tech campuses sits a stylish boutique hotel. And inside that hotel, after you walk through the cool, minimalistic lobby, past the shiny gold leaves dangling from the ceiling, you’ll spot this very chic, very Japanese little cocktail bar — with room for no more than seven or eight people at the counter.

When we sidled up to that counter at around 10 o’clock on a recent Friday, there was only one other gentleman there, nursing a cocktail and watching the Japanese F1 race on the TV with the volume turned off. So it really felt like we had stumbled on a secret spot.

Of course, we had come because we’d heard Nokori was open until midnight every night, and that it served a concise, appealing menu of fancy izakaya-style small plates until the kitchen did its last call at 11. And also because the bar specializes in the Japanese whisky highball, which happens to be my favorite drink.


A basic highball is just Japanese whisky, soda water and ice, but Nokori is one of a handful of bars around the Bay Area that has installed a special soda dispenser from Japan that makes the soda water extra-extra fizzy — so much so that the bubbles look visibly angry. The bar serves a whopping nine different highballs, and it uses the expensive kind of ice that’s just one long, perfectly clear cuboid in your glass. All of which to say: My yuzu highball was fantastic. Cold and refreshing as could be. Subtly citrusy. Sneakily strong.

Illustration: An elegant hotel lobby with modern, minimalist couches and an elegant bar at one end of the room, with sparkly gold leaves dangling from the ceiling.
For late-night diners looking for a more quiet and chill experience. (Thien Pham)

It was the food, however, that will bring me back. We ordered torched Hokkaido scallops that were served in a style you might expect to find at one of the Bay Area’s buzzier, Asian-inflected fine dining restaurants. The mostly raw scallops had a zippy leche de tigre dressing and were artfully garnished with algae, rice puffs and briny sea grapes that burst in your mouth — a fun pop-and-crunch effect.

I also had one of the tastiest versions of Japanese karaage-style fried chicken that I’ve eaten in months — just impeccably crispy, well-seasoned and juicy thighs, no bells and whistles other than the little bowl of watery onion salsa that you could spoon over the chicken for a bit of brightness. And, perhaps most decadently, there were furikake-topped lobster grilled cheese sandwiches, served on bouncy Japanese milk bread. (Could I really taste that it was lobster, instead of some less rarefied protein, under all that cheese? Maybe not. But I did want to dunk everything on the table into the savory miso aioli that came with the sandwich.)

No surprise, all those small plates can add up to a bit of a hefty bill if you’re eating dinner dinner. But for a fancy late-night snack at the bar? Considering that we were the only people ordering food at that hour, everything was so much more ambitious and better-tasting than it really needed to be.

So many of the Bay Area’s other after-hours spots are notable because of how crowded and bustling they are even late into the night, but Nokori’s virtues run in the opposite direction, appealing to anyone looking for a more chill and quiet late-night experience. This is the kind of elegant hotel bar where you might imagine yourself striking up a conversation with a beautiful stranger, or maybe your side-piece — or, if luck isn’t on your side, a couple of unkempt food writer types.

Nokori is open daily from 3 p.m. to midnight inside TETRA Hotel (400 W. Java Dr., Sunnyvale); the kitchen is open 4–11 p.m. If you park in the hotel parking garage, Nokori will validate your parking.

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