August 21, 2009
Tokyo's most bustling neighborhood welcomes diners on a low, low budget
Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on August 2009
It’s amazing to think that the price of food and drink in Shibuya has actually gone down during the 30 years I have lived there. In the mid-’80s, lunches were ¥1,000 or a little over; these days most are under ¥1,000. Bars have also held the line on prices, with many serving beer for about the same cost as in the early ’80s. Here is a list of some of my favorite budget places.
Smack in the middle of Center-gai, Standing Sushi stands out for its ¥75 plates, which is even lower than the ¥100 ones at the conveyor belt shops that were all the rage back in the ’90s. There is another shop in the chain, over off Dogenzaka, but the Center-gai location plays jazz, stays mellow even when deluged by all sorts of non-Japanese customers, and has service that’s always friendly. Plus, it’s a fantastic deal—some visiting Norwegian friends couldn’t get over the fact that prices here were a tiny fraction of those back home. While the cost of many items has crept above the ¥75 benchmark, the rises are certainly justified. The seafood rolls, for example, are interesting and filling for just ¥250. Beware of all the mayonnaise on many items; it seems to be the only way to satisfy young people on a fast-food diet rich in animal fats. Also, the word aburi really means that they take a propane torch and scorch the food—not aesthetically pleasing, but at these prices, who complains? Plan on getting a nice full feeling for about ¥1,000, or somewhat more if you go for expensive stuff like uni, ikura and toro.
25-6 Udagawacho. Tel: 03-5728-5451. Open daily 11:30am-11pm.
Every time I trudge down the stairs of Fujiya Honten Standing Bar, I get the feeling that I’m back in 1967. Located on the other side of the block from its sister pub, this classic standing bar comes complete with many patrons past retirement age (though the recent economic downturn draws in youngsters). It used to be that you would never see a woman here, but nowadays a few manage to stop in. The appeal is basic: all the classic izakaya drinks and foods, at the lowest prices you’re likely to find in Shibuya. A huge grilled shake-kama (salmon jaw)? Just ¥350 and quite filling. Vegetable items clock in at around ¥200, and deep-fried fare at around ¥300. I always enjoy saying that the sake list starts at ¥400 (for the Iwate-kura Junmaishu) and goes down from there, bottoming out at ¥280 for the Something-or-Other Kanbai (alas, not the famed Koshi-no-Kanbai). Plan on spending ¥1,000 per person, unless you’re a remarkably big eater and drinker.
B1, 2-3 Sakuragaoka-cho. (Located in the same building as the wine bar, but the entrance is around the corner on the other side. Look for the small black sign in front of stairs to the basement.) No phone. Open Mon-Fri 5-9pm, closed Sat-Sun & hols.
Until a few years ago, this was an old-line neighborhood liquor store whose business suffered as the area morphed from a residential to a commercial district. With little foot traffic, the owners decided to take out the shelves and refrigerators and put in a U-shaped bar and tables. Voila! A standing wine bar with bottles at retail prices. No wonder it’s crowded all the time. Often I will go in and find a bottle I want, drink a glass or two from it, then recork it and shove it into my backpack to finish at home. Fujiya has a friendly, knowledgeable staff, and the menus are made up of product sheets from the distributors/importers that have been bound into a large notebook. Once you start paging through, you’ll find it hard to keep from ordering more. The small food dishes, mostly under ¥700, include items like cheese assortments, cured European meats, pickles, olives and even a mini-lasagna.
2-3 Sakuragaoka-cho. Tel: 03-3461-2128. Open Mon-Sat 5-9:30pm, closed Sun.
This is a little coffee shop that time seems to have left somewhere back in the mid-’70s; surprisingly, it sits next to a branch of Shinsei Bank. Plates of spaghetti run from ¥300 to a bit over ¥500, and complete meals can be had for about ¥650. There is also a surprising array of low-cost desserts. Drinks are ¥150, or just ¥100 when ordering food, and even at that price the glasses of wine (usually Spanish) are surprisingly drinkable. Once you manage to get your tickets from the vending machine, take a seat and enjoy one of Shibuya’s best dining bargains. Black-Brown is quite popular with young women, and several of them stay a while to re-do their makeup.
B1, 2-29-19 Dogenzaka. Tel: 03-3464-1616. Open daily 11am-11pm.
Shibuya is awash in Indian restaurants, most of them distinguished by their sameness. Not so with Spice Garden, up at the top of Dogenzaka where it meets route 246. First, you have to figure out the ticket vending machine and make your selection. You’ll notice that prices for a meal are a few hundred yen lower than at places in the center of Shibuya. Also, the spices here taste fresher, and there is more variation in the flavors from dish to dish than at the usual Indian restaurants, where it seems like different meats have all been plopped into the same curry sauce.
28-4 Maruyama-cho. Tel: 03-3770-0177. Open daily 11am-2am.
For years and years, this was a mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant not far from the Udagawacho “robot” koban, but the current eatery emerged after a facelift and a change of management. Shanghai Shokudo serves two daily specials for ¥500 each, with countless more at ¥600. These are fairly complete meals, with large portions and surprisingly good quality food, though it helps to keep your expectations low. The gyoza are superbly porky and garlicky, with chewy handmade skins. Five of the dumplings cost just ¥250, or ¥500 with a beer. I recommend the enormous plate of happo-sai (chop suey), loaded with strips of pork and hard-pressed spiced tofu that has a consistency like cheese. Check out their low prices for party spreads, starting at around ¥800 per person. Also note that the staff are all Chinese and speak practically no Japanese apart from the names of the dishes.
2-30 Udagawa-cho. Tel: 03-3477-1630. Open daily 11am-midnight