Bay Area Bites Guide to 7 Exceptional Japanese Izakayas in the East Bay

Assorted Yakitori
Assorted Yakitori: pork belly; chicken breast tender; chicken skin; bacon-wrapped scallops; shrimp; quail eggs from Kushido in Oakland.

It's 5 o'clock, and perhaps you're leaving the office in search of some post-work libations and snacks before dinner. You could go the traditional happy hour route -- where you're limited to a few drink and appetizer specials within a short window of time -- or you could up the ante and visit an izakaya. These special Japanese establishments are known for the quality of their food, their extensive selection of sake, beer and other alcoholic beverages and a leisurely pace of drinking and dining is encouraged. Whet your appetite with their small plates or make a meal of grilled meat, sashimi, fried tofu and other traditional dishes. Here's our a list of our favorites in the East Bay; let us know yours in the comments.

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Unless you make a reservation (which requires a minimum of $30 per person, not including alcohol), add your name to the list and get ready to wait for a coveted spot at Kiraku: a lively, popular spot in Berkeley, it's not unusual to see many flushed, smiling faces of diners as they shakily exit the small restaurant. If you're lucky enough to score a table, wipe your hands with the courtesy warm towel given to you as you study the wealth of options on their menu. Definitely choose some items from their daily specials; on a recent Thursday evening, the lush snow crab and avocado dip, a generous portion of delicately fried anago (conger eel) tempura and maitake mushroom tempura with kabosu citrus and Japanese pepper salt were fantastic dishes. And if you're craving more deep-fried delights, go for the tempura rock shrimp with mayonnaise or the chewy, crispy chicken cartilage. For lighter tastes, their tsunami sampler ---- where you choose items from the starter section -- pickled takana leaves, octopus marinated with wasabi and seasoned seaweed make a great trio. There's also silky homemade tofu covered in a waterfall of shaved bonito flakes, blanched spinach, roasted broccoli with anchovy flakes, pine nuts and garlic in a mini-cast iron pan, albacore tataki and albacore yuzu ceviche. For the ultimate in umami flavors, try the nasu miso, or globe eggplant thickly lacquered in dark, rich miso glaze, the black pork belly skewer with housemade spicy miso and the fusion noodle dish of yaki udon with mushrooms, baby octopus and basil pesto. And don't neglect the sake; if you order it hot, you'll get to choose your cup from the collection of homemade ceramics.

2566B Telegraph Ave. [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94707
Ph: (510) 848-2758
Hours: Wed-Thu 5:30-10pm; Fri-Sat 5:30-11pm; Sun 5:30-9pm; Closed Mon-Tue
Facebook: Kiraku Restaurant
Price range: $$ Entrees ($11-$17)

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Ippuku, a Michelin Gourmand Bib-restaurant expertly overseen by chef Christian Geideman, is worth the hour-long wait you might face if you don't make a reservation. Hungry customers crowd the entrance as they bide their time, hovering by the bar or squeezing in together on wooden benches. There's cocktails, beer, whiskey and sake that will appeal to a wide range of tastes and budgets from under $10 to upwards of $300. If you're lucky, you'll score one of the traditional tatami mat-lined rooms with low tables, or zashiki, with a sunken floor -- be sure to remove your shoes before you slide onto the cushions. The menu is organized by the suggested sequence you should order your food; after the complimentary dish of raw cabbage with mayonnaise dressing, the jidori gyoza (housemade pan-fried chicken dumplings) chicken karage and dashi maki, or sweet egg omelette, are mouthwatering starters for your meal. If you're uncertain which of the yakitori, or skewered meats and vegetables, you should order, defer to the chef's choice: omakase gushi. Then move onto their signature dishes, such as the creamy, bechamel sauced-Dungeness crab croquettes, the sublime uni-pon, or sea urchin with ponzu sauce, ikasumi chahan (squid ink fried rice) and yaki onigiri (grilled rice balls). They also serve housemade soba on Monday and Tuesday evenings from 5-10PM.


2130 Center St. [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94704
Ph: (510) 665-1969
Hours: Wed-Thu, Sun 5-10pm; Fri-Sat 5-11pm
Price range: $$$$ (Entrees more than $25)

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Chef-owner Chikara Ono recently relocated his homey B-Dama izakaya from Piedmont Avenue to roomier digs in downtown Oakland's Swan's Market (and renamed it AS B-Dama using the initials of two of his chefs.) There's plenty of communal seating in the shared space (Cosecha and Taylor's Sausage are neighbors) either at wooden tables or at the counter. Although their previous offerings have been pared down, there's still quite a few of the familiar favorites included on its revamped menus; be sure to check out the bulletin board that announces rotating daily specials. The lunch menu features bento-style sets and sushi rolls, while there's more elegant entrees for dinner like fresh sashimi platters and broiled fish. Their substantial portions are perfect for sharing between 3-4 diners and, of course, there's a number of sake and beer options to choose from to wash down your chicken karage or agedashi

AS B-Dama
Swan's Market, 907 Washington St. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94607
Ph: (510) 251-1113
Hours: 11:30am-2pm; 5:30-10pm; Closed Sunday
Facebook: AS B-Dama
Price range: $$ Entrees ($11-$17)

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A perennial favorite of Berkeley residents for over 15 years -- the evening crowds frequently lined up for a table are a testament to its revered status -- Kirala serves up marvelous sushi and other traditional Japanese dishes. As you can only order items from its sizable list of yakitori at night, try and sit front and center to the robatayaki setup so you can get your skewers piping hot off the grill. Ground chicken wrapped in shiso leaves, a juicy lamb chop , ground chicken stuffed in bell peppers, grilled mackerel and salmon are absolutely delectable, while the grilled shishito (Japanese bell peppers) topped with shredded dried bonito flakes will give you a subtly spicy kick. For raw dishes, the ocean trout sushi, as well as the eel and avocado roll are superb, and the ikura (salmon roe) sushi and uni (sea urchin) will appeal to more adventurous palates. If you sit at the bar, chat up the bartender and have him recommend you some beer, sake or sake cocktails off of their prodigious menu; the Tedorigawa "Yamahai Junmai" is crisp and dry. Two other items of note are their seafood gyoza and kaki, or fried oysters. They also host a to-go spot within Epicurious Garden for bento boxes, sushi and other quick meals. And learn more about Kirala in this previous episode of Check, Please.

2100 Ward St. [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94705
Ph: (510) 549-3486
Hours: Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:30am-2pm; Dinner: Tue-Thu 5-9:30pm; Fri-Sat 5-10pm; Sun 5-9:30pm
Price range: $$$ Entrees ($18-$24)

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A pop-up restaurant located inside Garden House 4 nights a week, Abura-Ya is a collaboration between Adachi Hiroyuki, Angelo Hernandez, and Rodrigo de la Reza that specializes in Japanese fried chicken (read more about their business from East Bay Express). While there's no alcohol served yet, they cook up a variety of dishes that would be right at home in an izakaya setting. With a cornstarch marinade and seasoned with shio koji and pepper (but with no added corn syrup or sugar), their all-natural, boneless chunks of fried chicken thighs are prepared with an assortment of flavors, such as curry, Japanese BBQ or agave ginger teriyaki. Prices vary depending on portion size and orders are served with sliced raw cabbage and miso ranch dressing. Check their handwritten menu board for other savory items to sample; one evening featured tako poke carpaccio, or sliced boiled octopus, lemon jalapeño salt and sesame oil; vegetarian okonomiyaki, sans the usual seafood but topped with mayonnaise, tonkatsu sauce and sprouts; raw sesame kale salad with sesame ponzu dressing; roasted beets crostini with avocado, miso ranch dressing, lemon jalapeño salt, sprouts and Parmesan cheese on toast. It's cash only, so be sure to hit the ATM before you go.

380 15th St. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94612
Ph: (510) 835-9515
Hours: Wed-Sat 6-10pm
Facebook: Abura-Ya
Price range: $$ Entrees ($11-$17)

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Situated on the main drag of downtown Walnut Creek in a former meat market, Sasa's rustic contemporary interior has a long bar, high tables, a cozy, window-facing lounge and a quiet, heated outdoor patio for patrons to enjoy their Japanese-style tapas. Also open for lunch, this Michelin Guide-recommended restaurant's daytime menu has many of the same California-fusion items served in the evening. Try the steamed spinach with chilled sesame dressing and bonito flakes, or moromi, a glass of crunchy, raw vegetables accompanied by a barley miso dip. Highlights include sashimi omakase, chicken meatballs seasoned with a ginger-soy glaze and sesame seeds, salmon yakitori with sea salt, lemon and sancho pepper and tempura shrimp lettuce wraps with walnuts, black sesame seeds, miso aioli. "Izakaya Tuesdays" (from 4PM until closing) and "Wine Wednesdays" offer specials on select dishes and drinks. Check online to learn more about their sake, cocktail and alcohol menu.

1432 N. Main St. [map]
Walnut Creek, CA 94596
Ph: (925) 210-0188
Hours: Mon 11:30am-9pm; Tue-Thu 11:30am-10pm; Fri-Sat 11:30am-10:30pm; Sun 12-9pm
Facebook: Sasa Walnut Creek
Twitter: @Sasa_Restaurant
Price range: $$$$ (Entrees more than $25)

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Located in the Dublin Ulferts Center as Koi Palace's Dublin outposts, Yakitori West opened in July in the space formerly occupied by Yakitori Hiroshi. There's no bar, so customers sit either at wooden tables or one of the few traditional zashiki tables with recessed floors. The restaurant's best dishes are their solid sashimi and fish offerings: hamachi carpaccio in a yuzu sauce; hirame or halibut; ankimo (monk fish liver); sea bass misoyaki, or grilled wild Chilean sea bass with soybean paste. (Although on a recent visit, the maguro steak, or grilled tuna belly, was a tad overdone.) Fried bites like their pork gyoza dumplings, soft shell crab and yaki onigiri with bits of seaweed and salmon go well with a carafe of their house hot or cold sake. You can order individual yakitori skewers or dig into a chef's omakase sampler. They also sell a small range of beer, wine and sake and have a short list of desserts, including green tea ice cream.


Yakitori West
4288 Dublin Blvd., Ste. 109, (Ulferts Center) [Map]
Dublin, CA 94608
Ph: (925) 828-7765
Hours: Tue-Thu and Sun 5-9:30pm; Fri-Sat 5-10pm
Price range: $$ Entrees ($11-$17)

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