Japanese pub-restaurants, called izakaya (ee-ZAH-ka-ya), are sprouting up all over the Islands like matsutake mushrooms in a pine forest. They began as oases for homesick Japanese nationals but were soon discovered by adventurous locals, who appreciated the welcoming atmosphere, sprawling menus, and later dining hours.
Expect to be greeted by a merry, full-staff cry of "Irashaimase!", offered an oshibori (hot towel) and a drink, and handed a menu of dozens of small-plate, made-to-order dishes.
You can find yakitori (grilled dishes), tempura (deep-fried dishes), donburi (rice bowls), sushi and sashimi, nabemono and shabu-shabu (hot pots), noodles (both soup and fried), okonomiyaki (chop suey-type omelets), and a bizarre assortment of yoshoku dishes (Western foods prepared in Japanese style, such as hamburgers in soy-accented gravy, fried chicken with a mirin glaze, odd gratins, and even pizza).
Full bars are usual; a wide choice of lager-type beers and good-to-great sakes are universal. Many specialize in single-malt scotch, but wine lists are generally short.
Izakaya menus are often confusing, many staff speak marginal English, and outings can get expensive fast (liquor plus small-plate prices equals eyes bigger than stomach). Prices range from $5 for a basket of edamame (steamed and salted soybeans) to $20 or more for wafu (seasoned, grilled steak, sliced for sharing). Start by ordering drinks and edamame or silky-textured braised kabocha pumpkin. This will keep the waiter happy. Then give yourself a quarter of an hour to examine the menu, ogle other people's plates, and seek recommendations. Start with one dish per person and one for the table; you can always call for more.
Imanas Tei. Go early or very late to this cozy, out-of-the-way restaurant for its tasteful, simple decor and equally tasteful and simply perfect sushi, sashimi, nabe (hot pots prepared at the table), and grilled dishes; reservations are taken from 5 to 7 pm; after that, there's always a line. 2626 S. King St., Moiliili, Honolulu, HI, 96826. PHONE: 808/941-2626 or 808/934-2727. $10.
Izakaya Nonbei. Teruaki Mori designed this pub to put you in mind of a northern inn in winter in his native Japan; dishes not to miss—karei kara-age (delicate deep-fried flounder); dobinmushi (mushroom consommé presented in a teapot); fried gobo (burdock) chips; and crab, avocado, and bacon salad. 3108 Olu St., Kapahulu, Honolulu, HI, 96816. PHONE: 808/734-5573. $10.
Tokkuri-Tei. This is a favorite of locals for the playful atmosphere that belies the excellence of the food created by chef Hideaki "Santa" Miyoshi, famous for his quirky menu names (Nick Jagger, Spider Poke); just say Moriwase, kudasai ("chef's choice, please"), and he'll order for you. Just be aware that some of the more rare seafood dishes can cost up to $45 (each). 449 Kapahulu Ave., Kapahulu, Honolulu, HI, 96816. PHONE: 808/739-2800.
Also worth a visit:
Mr. Oji-san. If you're looking for a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that is out of the way but still in town, try Mr. Oji-san for family-style izakaya specialties—tempura, miso butterfish, sashimi—and Okinawan dishes. 1018 Kapahulu Ave., Kapahulu, Honolulu, HI, 96815. PHONE: 808/735-4455. www.mrojisan.com.
Kaiwa for Osaka-style omelets. Waikiki Beachwalk, 2nd Floor, 226 Lewers St., Waikiki, Honolulu, HI, 96815. PHONE: 808/924-1555.