The artistic and cultural hub of Japan, Kyoto is a foodie paradise and offers a wide range of dining experiences spanning traditional Japanese to the more avant-garde and international. The craft of cooking, as in all facets of Japanese life, has been honed over the generations and a respect for the ingredients, the quality of the presentation, and the overall harmony of a dish manifests itself perfectly in the foods and culinary explorations found in Kyoto. Food, in my opinion, is the epitome of cultural and local expression, and the variety and refinement found in Japanese cuisine is incredibly difficult to find elsewhere. As in the rest of Japan, a bad meal is hard to find in Kyoto, so do stray off of the below list and see what else you uncover.
Shouraian - To try tofu artfully prepared and presented in a variety of ways don't miss Shoraian in Arashiyama. Dishes span yuba (soft tofu skin), yudofu (tofu boiled in broth), and even a delicious tofu ice cream. The traditional tatami room restaurant sits on the banks of the Katsura River and boasts beautiful views. The staff is all female and were all extremely friendly. Reservations are a must.
Katsukura (multiple locations) - Tonkatsu, breaded deep fried pork cutlets, is the name of the game at Katsukura. Simply pick the size and type of cutlet and enjoy it along side unlimited rice, miso soup, and cabbage salad. My favorite part of the experience is making your own sauce by grinding goma or sesame seeds and mixing it with one of two sauce bases. Excellent value, come hungry.
Tempura Endo Yasaka - Tempura is best served individually, piping hot, and freshly out of the fryer. To enjoy a multi course tempura lunch or dinner head to Tempura Endo where you will be seated at a beautiful counter where you can watch each course prepared in front of you.
Kishin Kitchen - For an intimate and delicious Japanese breakfast made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients visit Kishin. The staff is incredibly friendly and will describe each dish in detail and answer any questions. The menu typically consists of a starter (yuba during my visit), a choice of three homemade soups, clay pot cooked rice, some type of fish, and plenty of tea and sake. They also have especially beautiful pottery which is just an added bonus.
Kikunoi or Kikunoi Roan - Multi Michelin starred kaiseki. These are probably the most expensive and the most posh on the list, but are worth it for the experience. As with most fine dining the experience is intimate, especially at Kikunoi Roan where I spent much of the meal speaking with the chef about various dishes.
Spice Chamber - Tiny, think 6 seats or so, curry house near the Karasuma Subway station. There is one type of curry served with rice each day and all you have to do is decide on Small, Medium, or Large. Do note that the curry is quite spicy.
Sushi Gion Matsudaya - Although in general I would say the sushi scene in Kyoto isn't as spectacular as Tokyo, Sushi Gion Matsudaya with its one Michelin star hits the spot.
Yakiniku Hiro - For delicious cuts of Wagyu and other meats, yakiniku (Korean style BBQ where you cook your own meats at your table) is a fun option. Go with a few hungry friends.
Arakawa - For an excellent albeit pricey teppanyaki (grilled meat cooked in front of you) experience head to this small restaurant in the Shijo - Kawaramachi area.
Fusion & Western Leaning /
Monk - This understated and modest 12-seat restaurant on the Philosopher's Path was one of my favorite meals on a recent trip to Kyoto. The menu fuses Asian and Western flavors and serves a pretty great pizza as one of the courses. Make sure to make a reservation.
Osteria Sempre - For a break from Japanese cuisine, this tiny Italian restaurant is a neighborhood gem. There are only 3 tables and about six seats at the bar, but it is usually easy to walk in. The menu is surprisingly varied and has a selection of starters, mains and pastas. The fresh bread and cacio pepe pasta are especially delicious.
Gyoza Chao Chao - Gyoza or Japanese potstickers are lighter and less oily than their Chinese counterparts and are most often served with a nice crispy bottom. Gyoza Chao Chao has a whole host of gyoza options spanning the traditional pork, shrimp, or vegetable to mozarrella, curry, and even chocolate. Often busy so arrive early or come late night.
Goya - A casual restaurant with a focus on Okinawan food with a Western bent. Lots of options for veggies and vegans as well.
Sowgen - Housed in the back of an antique shop, Sowgen is a hip, hidden cafe dishing up a variety of drinks and tasty food items. The menu is not always translated to English so make sure to utilize the google translate scan over feature to get an idea of the dishes. Curry was quite good.
Biotei - Homey and rustic second floor restaurant that serves organic macrobiotic meals that can be vegetarian and vegan friendly. Great value for lunch sets!
Kyoto Gogyo - Burnt Miso Ramen. Need I say more? There is often a wait here, but I think it's worth it as this is my favorite bowl of ramen in the city. The restaurant annoyingly charges a 400 yen per person service fee, but it does include a small appetizer. No true vegetarian ramen option but there are plenty of other items on the menu.
Ippudo - The perennial (and now global) ramen favorite, Ippudo is a guaranteed good bowl of ramen. The restaurant moves people quickly so don't expect to wait long or at all. Ippudo is also open until 3am so it is a great late night option. Vegetarian option available.
Ichiran - The much discussed vending machine ramen.
Menbakaichidai (Fire Ramen) - This ramen joint is really more for the experience than the ramen itself as they literally set it on fire in front of you. Although it has a nice charred flavor, I wouldn't say that it comes close to other bowls in the city. Do go if you'd like to see a video of yourself raising your eyebrows dramatically as the flames burst up.
Udon & Soba /
Okakita - Often less crowded than its neighbor (below) but equally as tasty, Okakita is an udon and soba restaurant with light wood walls, soft lighting, and a pleasant staff. There are about 20 different broths and types of sauce and you simply pick if you want udon or soba. Worth the wait if there is a line.
Yamamoto Menzou - Cozy udon restaurant with a cult following. The noodles are thick and chewy and perfectly cooked. The line can be extensive and the restaurant closes early so plan accordingly. I always go next door to Okakita if the line is too long.
Ryuhei Soba - What I would call soba kaiseki and a truly memorable meal, especially for those who have loved soba, buckwheat noodles, since infancy like me. The restaurant has one Michelin star and features multiple courses, with the majority having some soba component. A bit far out from central Kyoto but totally worth the 30 min bus ride. Reservations necessary.
Omen (multiple locations) - Straightforward, excellent selection of udon.
Kendonya - A great place to stop after visiting the Fushimi Inari Shrine for some chewy and delicious udon noodles.
Marugame Seimen Kawaramachi Sanjo - Quick, tasty, and cheap in a prime location. Pick a type, pick a size, and add any tempura you'd like. The udon is freshly made and has a nice bite to it. You can be in and out in 20 mins, which is nice if you're on a quick lunch break.
Cafe Bibliotic Hello! - A hipstery bookstore meets a cafe on this quiet residential street. The open space is bright and airy, but still maintains a homey, warmness with a fireplace and wood details. Coffees, pastries and a pretty decent menu of food items for both lunch and dinner is available. I felt the service was hit or miss as some people weren't all that friendly.
Somushi Kochaya - Korean tea house that also offers a decent selection of lunch items. Often closed so check the schedule before heading that way.
100% Arabica - With several locations including one in Arashiyama and one in Higashiyama, 100% Arabica serves a consistently good coffee or espresso based drink. The decor in all the locations is light, bright and minimalist, but polished.
Weekenders Coffee - At the back of a parking lot is the quaint but beautifully designed Weekenders Coffee. It was here that I likely had the best pour over of my Kyoto stay, but they also offer the full list of espresso based drinks. Enjoy a cup outside or take it to go as the inside is just the small bar. Cash only.
Wife & Husband - Pretty far out from central Kyoto, but if you find yourself in the neighborhood this quaint, neighborhood spot has a great vibe and serves a nice coffee.
Drip & Drop Coffee Supply - Down a flight of stairs, this subterranean coffee house is a good spot to get some work done as the wifi is speedy and there are outlets. Coffee, pastries, and even cocktails are available so a visit at any time of day is appropriate.
Vermillion Cafe - The best pit stop cafe after or before visiting the Fushimi Inari shrine. Excellent coffee and matcha based drinks/cakes, as well as other baked goods and a selection of sandwiches. The space is modern and it has great views!
Len Hostel & Cafe - A fun spot in the lobby of a hostel to grab a croissant and a cup of coffee while enjoying wifi and a warm ambiance.
L'Escamoteur Bar - Up a flight of stairs on a quiet street near the Kamo River is the dark and atmospheric L'Escamoteur Bar. The wide range of cocktails are delicious and many have a theatrical flair. If you're a shiso lover you must try the Shiso Sour.
Sake Bar Yoramu - For a truly educational sake experience, go to the 8-10 seat Sake Bar Yoramu where each sake has been chosen for a specific reason by the owner Yoram. Special attention is given to your palette and the experience is tailored to each person. There is a small food menu that is designed to complement the sake.
Nokishita 711 (gin bar) - All gin all the time. Innovative gin cocktails using local ingredients in a small Kyoto space.
Beer Komachi - Large selection of beers and sharing plate type bites. The space is compact so maybe just bring one friend.
If you made it through that list, you must really like eating! We could be friends.