These NYC Bars Will Transport You to Japan
Incredible food, cocktails and hospitality are on the menu at these 9 establishments
Japan is one of the most magical places you can visit, especially if you’re a cocktail enthusiast. But even if the Land of the Rising Sun isn’t on your travel roster for 2023, you don’t have to go far to experience Japanese bartending at its finest. Here in NYC, there are a plethora of amazing Japanese bars that will transport you to the country through their food, drinks and design. These are nine of our favorites.
Located in a historical Gramercy carriage house, Martiny’s is helmed by beverage director Takuma Watanabe, who was previously head bartender at the now-shuttered but ever-legendary Japanese bar, Angel’s Share. The name pays homage to Watanabe’s favorite cocktail, the martini, but it’s also a nod to Philip Martiny, a French-American sculptor whose studio used to occupy the space. The cocktails are among the most elegant you can drink in NYC, and just like any great Japanese bar, there’s no standing room so everyone can get a personal experience. We’re fans of the Grand Martiny’s, a mix of Bombay Sapphire Gin, La Cigarrera Sherry, 2016 Porto, Hine Rare Cognac, St-Germain and grapes. The snacks are just as decadent and often change with what’s seasonally available.
Bar Goto Niban
As a follow-up to his successful Lower East Side watering hole, Bar Goto, Kenta Goto opened Bar Goto Niban in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood in early 2020. Not only is Goto one of the most talented bartenders in NYC, he learned omotenashi — the art of Japanese hospitality — growing up working for his mother at their family restaurant in Tokyo. The warm and inviting space is designed with sleek wood details and hand-painted wallpaper of a Japanese garden scene that stretches behind the bar. The Mr. Flores is a winner, made with tequila, Chartreuse, shiso and lime, and the $10 martini happy hour is one of the best in the city. Don’t miss the legendary miso wings if you’re craving a snack.
Hard to Explain
It’s easy to imagine yourself in Tokyo when walking into Hard to Explain, a mini East Village bar that is small on space but big on vibes. Take a seat along the narrow bar or snag one of the two stools in the window while you ponder what to drink. The bar specializes in small-batch and rare sakes, and features Japanese beers, a nice wine list and a small selection of lower-ABV cocktails like the Heart to Explain, mixed with Kimoto Nigori sake, yuzu, amaro and sweet vermouth. Vinyl is also on the menu, and guests can help choose the tunes by picking from the selection they have on-site or by bringing in their own records to play.
Shinji’s might be the newest bar on this list, but it has certainly made waves with its opulent interior and interactive cocktail experience. The bar is named after Shinji Nohara, also known as the “Tokyo Fixer,” who is famous for his knowledge of and relationships with the food and restaurant scene in Japan. The granite-topped horseshoe bar seats eight, while hand-cut mosaic tables around the space can accommodate 10 more. Cocktails are served either at the bar or on tableside carts, and each is presented with unique glassware and an accompanying coaster. Take the Tropicana, a whimsical take on the screwdriver with vodka and housemade orange liqueur, served in a frozen orange that takes six hours to construct. The Foie Gras Sidecar is made with foie gras-washed Hennessy X.O. and served with a foie gras tartlet. If you really want to get fancy, add a shaving of Alba white truffles to the Miyazaki A5 wagyu sando.
GG Tokyo is also a newcomer on this list (the bar opened in April 2022), but it’s already quite the hotspot — both for locals and guests of the Park South Hotel, as it’s located just off the lobby. GG takes its inspiration from the bars of Tokyo’s lively Golden Gai district, a network of narrow alleys and mismatched bars that are so tiny, they can often accommodate only a few patrons at a time. While GG is much more spacious and modern than many of the watering holes in Golden Gai, the energetic, convivial atmosphere gives some insight into the influence. The cocktails are bright in both flavor and color, like the pinkish-red Mermaid, which mixes beet-infused Ten To One Rum with Laphroaig 10, sake and yuzu. You can’t go wrong with the food, either — the okonomiyaki and sea bream pressed sushi with ume-furikake rice and shiso are must orders.
When you first go to the website for NR, which is tucked behind a nondescript door on Manhattan’s East 75th Street, you get the feeling that you’re in for something different. The black and white silent film that plays on the homepage shows a man and his granddaughter throwing back cocktails and slurping ramen in a flapper-era setting. While you likely won’t see people done up in fur stoles and dancing the Charleston when you walk in, NR is a contemporary twist on restaurants you would find in Japanese port towns during the Meiji period, when the country became open to the rest of the world. The cocktail menu includes both classic and signature drinks, which are often served in ornate glassware or presented with theatrical pyrotechnics. Japanese bites like ramen, karaage and a truffle egg sandwich are just as tasty as the libations.
Bar at Nakaji
Out of all the places on this list, Bar at Nakaji probably transports us to Japan the most. It is the front room part of Nakaji, the 10-seat, Edomae-style sushi omakase restaurant from Chef Kunihide Nakajima, which is by far one of the best dining experiences in NYC. But if you can’t spring for the $275 tasting menu, settle into the Bar at Nakaji for special, yet more affordable, dining and drinks. The small menu includes dishes like Kurobuta sausage and chirashi with seasonal sashimi, and the beverage menu has a lineup of excellent cocktails, premium sake, shochu, and tons of both rare and readily-available Japanese whiskies. If you’re in the know, order an off-menu Hakumai Martini — a collaboration between Chef Nakajima and Kenta Goto — which is made with Haku Vodka, kijoshu sake, hinoki bitters and Nakajima’s famous housemade ginger and pairs perfectly with a plate of sushi.
Katana Kitten just might be the most fun bar in NYC. It’s never not bustling with cocktail enthusiasts wanting to try one of Masahiro Urushido’s impeccably-made cocktails, and there are always more than a few regulars at the bar, drinking a tall refresher from the Toki Highball machine. Katana Kitten has been making an appearance on the list of World’s 50 Best Bars since it opened, and one sip of a signature cocktail will tell your taste buds why. Take for example the Panda Fizz, a tropical, refreshing mix of Haku Vodka, pear, Calpico, lemon, pandan, soda and lava salt, or Urushido’s take on the Amaretto Sour, which adds Wild Turkey Rye, salted plum and yukari (shiso rice seasoning) to what is typically a four-ingredient drink. Bites like karaage calamari and the mortadella katsu sando will fuel you up for another round.
Modeled after a Taisho-era jazz bar in Japan, Bar Moga is a beautiful corner watering hole that feels like another world once you step inside. Moga is the shortened version of “modern girl,” Japanese women who wore Western fashion and ascribed to more independent lifestyles following World War I, kind of like the U.S. flapper. The bar pays homage with Art Deco artwork and design details, and the cocktails are inspired by American Prohibition-era drinks, reimagined with Japanese ingredients. Fans of agave spirits should try the Princess Mononoke, made with mezcal, Ancho Reyes, yuzu kosho, lime and shichimi spice. The kari kari vegetable ramen and omurice are comfort food at its finest.
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