Venice’s Best-Kept Dining Secrets
Escape the iconic Italian city’s crowds at coffee shops on quiet canals and taverns serving cicchetti to gondoliers.
As the vibrant city enters a new chapter, our writer reflects on its evolution, which includes noteworthy new restaurants, hotels, and sights.
IN JANUARY 2020, I stumbled across a story about a mysterious and deadly new virus in China. All week long, I’d been meticulously preparing for my twice-annual trip to Japan at the end of the month. I’d traveled through flu outbreaks in Asia before, and as work and friends increasingly brought me to Japan, it began to feel like home, so I wasn’t overly concerned. But as the days went on, the outbreak worsened, and the virus jumped from China to Japan. Days preceding my departure, I was still on the fence about whether to cancel. In the end, I boarded a plane for Tokyo’s Narita Airport and packed some medical masks I’d picked up in Tokyo years earlier for my hay fever. What I didn’t know then is that I wouldn’t get back home to Zürich for nearly two months. And I wouldn't get back to Tokyo for another three years.
Tokyo, the world’s largest city with a greater metro population of almost 38 million, was completely closed to tourism for nearly three years and only reopened in October 2022. The city where I spent several month-long visits during the last decade and the one I finally visited again twice in spring 2023 are two different places. To the casual observer, little changed. The busy and ever-expansive metropolis purred along as usual with its army of polite, well-dressed Tokyoites, chiming crosswalk signals, 7-Eleven and bullet-train jingles, and echoing crow calls. Shibuya Scramble Crossing — the iconic, multi-cornered intersection — still heaved with tourists, Shinjuku’s neon-hued streets were dense with the smells of sizzling beef and nabe (hot pot), and upper-floor microbars filled with post-work locals. The subterranean depāto (department store) grocery mongers and yokocho (food halls) across the city still hawked white strawberries, $100 melons, fatty cuts of tuna, and seasonal shirako (cod semen, an acquired taste if ever there was one). This was the Tokyo I knew and loved.
But for those with a trained eye, this was an altered city. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s assassination, the long isolation of the pandemic, the bust Olympics, and a crippling economic crisis have created a slightly less optimistic mood in Japan’s capital city. And yet, there was an air of innovation. While no one can claim to truly know a city as big as Tokyo, I’d venture to say that it’s not returning to normal, but rather coming into a new phase — and it’s one I want to get to know.
What changed? For starters, Japan entered the new imperial Reiwa era, with a new emperor, in May of 2019. Previous imperial eras have strongly impacted the country’s identity, notably the long-running Shōwa era, spanning 1926 to 1989. Often described as Japan’s formative modernization period, it marked when Japan became an economic superpower and experienced long periods of expansion and prosperity. This is the Tokyo that popularized anime, 7-Eleven, ramen, sukiyaki (the beloved beef hot-pot dish often served on birthdays and celebrations), metabolist architecture, and the shinkansen, the country’s network of high-speed railways. The present-day era’s identity is still forming.
Another change: Its new crop of hotels upping Tokyo’s commitment to omotenashi (Japanese hospitality), many of them that were designed to open during the ill-fated Summer 2020 Olympics. Four Seasons Otemachi, with its elegant Japanese design and 190 rooms occupying the top six floors of a 39-story building, opened in September 2020 and is a 10-minute walk to Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace. Hotel designer Jean-Michel Gathy added nuanced Japanese touches such as a tranquil rock pool in the lobby, a torii-gate orange entrance, and dead-quiet rooms with washi paper sconces. The hotel has arresting views of Mount Fuji, best seen in the mornings before the clouds obscure the view. The stoves at its Michelin-starred restaurant Est are manned by Chef Guillaume Bracaval, who creates locavore French dishes such as trout with chrysanthemum greens and duck with burdock root, while legendary mixologist Keith Motsi anchors its discreetly hidden bar Virtù, fortified with a wall of whisky so tall it requires a rolling ladder to access all the bottles. Ask him, as I did recently one night before dinner, for a signature smoked-ume old-fashioned.
Another notable newcomer is the Bulgari Hotel, which opened in April 2023, with designs by the Milan-based studio of Antonio Citterio Patricia Viel, who is also the vision behind all eight Bulgari hotels and resorts worldwide. This 98-room resort occupies the 40th to 45th floors of the glimmering new Tokyo Midtown Yaesu skyscraper and is decorated with Italian furniture from Maxalto and B&B Italia. Jewel tones and precious materials, such as travertine, gold leaf, Murano glass, and silver — earmarks of Bulgari’s design aesthetic — serve as reminders of the brand’s origins as a jewelry maker. Book a seat at its excellent eight-person omakase sushi counter run by Japanese Chef Kenji Gyoten, awarded three Michelin stars at his former post, Sushi Gyoten, and make time to visit Bulgari’s spa with Japanese baths, a sauna, and a steam room. The property’s many outdoor terraces — at the spa, pool, restaurant, and bar — are rare finds in Tokyo high-rises.
The myth that Tokyo’s restaurants are expensive has lingered. There are, of course, 3-Michelin-starred temples and lavish kaiseki (traditional multicourse meals) that easily fetch three figures and are oft-frequented by tourists. But Tokyo’s everyday izakaya (pubs), nabe, and yakiniku (beef barbecue) spots typically have excellent food for affordable prices, especially now that the Japanese yen has plummeted against the U.S. dollar.
High or low, Tokyo’s restaurants have always come and gone. Sadly, many of my go-to’s shuttered during the pandemic, but this gave me reason to find new ones. One such spot is Yoshi Izakaya in touristy Ueno. On a rainy lunch break in March, I watched it fill with salary workers, so I ducked in and ordered the sashimi set and a chawanmushi, a savory egg custard, and sat at the bar with the workers, practicing my Japanese. Another new find was Yakinikuya Sakai. After a night at Shinjuku’s gay bars, a friend and I were walking through the neon-lit streets when we got a whiff of charcoal-grilled beef from the many yakiniku joints. We stopped for grilled cuts of wagyu, marbled tongue, and tender pork, washing it all down with copious amounts of sake.
On past trips to Tokyo, I always arrived with a list of ramen and sushi places to explore. During my recent spring visits, I didn’t eat sushi or ramen once. Instead, I explored the yokocho food halls, including the retro Kotora Komichi in Toranomon, Kankoku Yokocho in Shin-Ōkubo’s Koreatown, and the trendy Toranomon Yokocho serving dishes from nearby Michelin-starred restaurants. But my most satisfying meals in Japan — and anywhere, really — have been impromptu visits to places I eyeballed on the street. (The places highlighted on Netflix and in travel guides often don’t live up to the hype). I always urge my Tokyo-bound friends to explore more while in the city. You are less likely to be turned away from a Tokyo restaurant for being a tourist than you might be in Kyoto and other parts of Japan. Tourists still tend to congregate in the same Tokyo districts: Ginza, Shinjuku, Roppongi, and Shibuya. My rule in Japan: visit places I haven’t heard of. Tokyo has a staggeringly low crime rate and one of the best public transport systems. Hitting the streets with no plan in mind is one of the best ways to see the city.
For sights and shopping, visitors will find much changed. Sayonara to the eight-story Tokyu Hands Ikebukuro shopping mecca, and teamLab’s Borderless exhibit in Odaiba, which didn’t survive the pandemic. But there’s a new crop of sights to explore. Shibuya Sky is a new 360-degree open-air observation deck at the rooftop of Shibuya Scramble Square. I booked a slot during blue-hour dusk to catch the city transitioning to its glittery bejeweled nighttime self. Additional newly opened attractions include the long-awaited Studio Ghibli theme park in Kichijōji, a favorite relaxed neighborhood where I spend a lot of time visiting local friends; architect Kengo Kuma’s Japan National Stadium, built for the 2020 Olympics, open to the public for tours through March 2024. Those lamenting teamLab’s closure will be pleased to hear that the iconic digital collective of artists is reopening the Mori digital-art museum in a new space in 2023 in Azabudai Hills as part of a major urban development project.
In 2015, I spent two months living in and writing about Tokyo’s Nakameguro, a beautiful canal neighborhood lined with one-off boutiques such as 1LDK Apartments, a houseware and clothing shop that feels like an indie Muji. The neighborhood has since become wildly popular with tourists during spring cherry blossom season, but still not a name that most visitors recognize. While reporting on a Tokyo coffee shop, I visited the adjacent neighborhood of Meguro and refueled on caffeine at Switch, an airy, micro-sized contemporary kissaten (coffee shop) hidden on one of the neighborhood’s many side streets. Switch’s humble owner Masahiro Onishi studied latte art and coffee culture in Melbourne and brought his techniques back to Tokyo.
While covering Tokyo’s art scene for a newspaper, I was tipped off by a friend to visit Nadiff A/p/a/r/t, an art-book shop and maze of galleries occupying a glass-and-steel structure on an Ebisu back street and one of Tokyo’s best places to see the work of young, avant-garde artists. In March 2020, when my flight home from Tokyo to Zürich was canceled, I was spending time in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Otsuka while reviewing the new Hoshino OMO5 hotel that had recently opened there. Rather than sit in my hotel room and worry, I took to the streets amid a sea of calmly masked Tokyoites — 99% of whom still mask in- and outdoors today. I sought out some peaceful moments in Tokyo’s temples and shrines and found comfort in its izakaya. Walking around Tokyo at night — both then and now — is a quiet, almost meditative experience. The city doesn’t have one icon that anchors you to it, but rather multiple buoys that help you understand and navigate this sea that can be as foreign to Japanese people as it is to visitors like me. And if that’s not a reason to fall in love with and visit a city multiple times, I don’t know what is.
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Adam H. Graham is an American food and travel journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland. He’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Afar, and more. He typically spends a few months every year in Japan, and recently spent several weeks visiting Japanese vineyards in several different prefectures.
Timothée Lambrecq is a Tokyo-based French photographer and filmmaker. He has teamed up with the creative industry’s main- stays, including Studio Olafur Eliasson, Björk and has been published in medias such as BBC News, i-D, GQ, WIRED JP, Transit, Financial Times.
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