The Izakaya, Ramen Bar & Kaiseki Restaurant: What Makes their Design Distinct?


Our third foray into fancy (and casual) dining lingo takes us to the land of the rising sun: none other than Japan. For over 200 years, during the Edo period (Edo being the previous name for Tokyo), Japan remained in isolation from other influences and contact. A decree was issued that no one could come in, and no one could leave the island, which was only reachable by an unpredictable sea anyhow; a deterrent to visitors (or would be conquerors) for many centuries. Many historians and studiers of food culture attribute this period, among other things, to Japan’s unique culinary identity. Today, we’ll briefly explore the design details of the Izakaya, the Kaiseki restaurant, and the Ramen Bar. There are so very many more. There are as many Japanese eatery types as ways to order coffee at Starbucks.

IZAKAYA / “stay here”+ sakaya “liquor shop”
Think of an izakaya as your local brasserie or enoteca, or even tapas joint. That is, a neighborhood bar with some food to go with all those drinks. This is not the type of place where you finish your plates and someone is dropping the bill in your lap—the intent of the izakaya—and perhaps of many casual bars—is to sow a sense of community: you know, get into some regrettable conversation about politics with your great aunt and then text your best friend to come meet you once she takes off in a huff. The point is, the izakaya will not rush you out, and it won’t think you’re bonkers if you order a small plate of yakitori (skewered chicken, grilled over charcoal) when you arrive and another order of dumplings (or two) with your third glass of sake. Some izakayas offer a service roughly translated as “bottle keep,” and that’s exactly what it sounds like: they will tuck away your bottle of Shochu for you so it’ll still be there when you come back. Now if only we could get some Chicago bars to adopt this practice.

Is it form follows function? Does that question really matter? Point is, the liquor came first (as we all know it did) and bar culture as we know it wrapped itself around (no pun intended) the lingering-and-drinking model. At the izakaya, fried and ultra-salty bites paired beautifully with the Japanese spirit known as Shochu, a drink of distilled rice, barely or sweet potato, that is heartier (and less expensive) than Sake and can stand up to the slightly imbibed’s palette. Using Shochu as the heart of the izakaya, let’s expand outward. The idea of bottle keep (since a bottle of Shochu would always be a better deal than the glass) resulted in a splash of cubbies to hold bargoer’s bottles. These, as much as the red lanterns that hung outside (and still hang outside the traditional izakayas, akachochin) became as much a design distinction as the business-suit wearing office workers languishing over a workday finally done.

Although this photo wasn’t taken at a kaiseki restaurant, it demonstrates the beautiful plating of food and treatment of ingredients in Japanese cuisine. 

KAISEKI / kai “kimono fold” + seki “stone”
The term kaiseki has an interesting history. Zen priests used a hot stone against their stomachs (tucked into a kimono fold) to soothe hunger pangs during prayer.  This evolved into spare, vegetarian meals to go with tea ceremony, but eventually unfurled into Japan’s special legacy of multi-course tasting menus, including all manner of animal from land and sea. Kaiseki is also heavily tied to seasonality, and the menus, which have no strict regulations and are rather thought of as the brainchild of their master chef, reflect whether the tasting courses occur in the fall, winter, spring or summer. How exactly do you summarize the space where something so magical occurs? A good starting point is to consider that the design of the food, from the color and texture, to the arrangement, dishes and emotion is as much a part of the architecture of the space as the walls, floors or windows. 

Japanese food, especially kaiseki, is known for its meticulous and gorgeous plating. Concepts like balance and height make for a striking visual feast before the flavors of the sea wash over a diner’s palette. Because of their generally high price tag, Kaiseki restaurants often have a private tatami room, which can take up precious real estate in Japanese restaurants, however make for a special, private experience for the diner. Tatami rooms include cushions to sit on and are close to the floor, which thanks to Ondol heating, have long been warm and welcoming. Tatami rooms echo the Japanese aesthetic of minimalism and a close relationship with the natural world. Warm wood, sliding shoji doors and a spare table with gentle, natural (or at least non-obtrusive) lighting set the scene for an elegant meal. The japanese aesthetic principle of shibuior a subtlety circumscribed with a quiet depth comes to mind when thinking of these traditional spaces. Interestingly enough, tatami rooms were modeled off study rooms for rich homeowners, but eventually became spaces commonly found in everyday homes.

at the ramen bar in Tokyo

RAMEN BAR / incomplete info of origin / SUSHI BAR su “vinegar” and meshi, meaning “rice”
That delicious bowl of Ramen we crave day and night has its origins in China, where hand-pulled noodles in a savory broth made its way to Japan circa 1868. China is also responsible for the father of both shoyu and miso, known as hishio, without which ramen would lack the umami punch that makes it so addicting. All of Lucky Peach’s Ramen timeline is a delight, and we highly recommend it. Over the years, ramen evolved to include different styles, wheat noodles, and eventually, to end up in an instant cup along the shelves of 7-11 (but don’t knock Japanese 7-11 till you’ve tried it, it truly blows Chicago’s out of the water). As a child, ramen meant “something mom served with parboiled carrots and half a tuna sandwich”, but that shows how much I had to learn as a youngster. Now it is synonymous with a big, brothy bite filled with pork belly, slippery noodles, exquisite stock, and the elusive soft-boiled egg. Likewise, I thought of sushi as an expensive, special occasion experience, certainly not “fast food.” However sushi’s origins are actually as a street food, and have appeared everywhere from conveyor belts to convenience stores, to as celebrities themselves at Jiro’s Sushi bar. 

DESIGN DETAILS: The Ramen Bar & The Sushi Bar
Forgive us for being transfixed, but the idea of a bar is just so fascinating. Why did the bar, particularly the ramen bar, become so adored? Was it the fact that it both served as a design object, creating a sense of place, while also establishing a protocol that many sit down restaurants need signs for (please wait to be seated), whereas a bar silently says “please step right up.” That’s perhaps an article for another time, but based on spec (ok fine, the spread of the noodle bar in North America is credited to David Chang; what can’t this guy do!) we’d assume it’s an easy way for a pared down service staff to reach its customers while doing other things. A bartender can sling food, cocktails and chatter, all while polishing glasses and calculating tabs when behind the bar with his customers all within a handful of steps. The very design of a bar screams pragmatic, casual, and comfort (and economy). You’re not staring up at a server, you’re looking them in the eye. Is it any wonder we’ll always eat at the bar when given the option? They remove some of the stuffiness from dining and replace it with familiarity; a democracy that belies the origins of ramen and sushi as everyday food, which is what it historically was. If you’re a sushi chef, you can easily roll and serve without leaving your station. If you’re a ramen cook, the bowl loses no steam as it goes from back counter to front. And in both situations, you can easily recommend what corresponds to the catch of the day, and converse with your patrons. Sushi or ramen and the idea of a table-laden, full service restaurant just don’t really mesh, not in Japan anyway.