I've been in Kyoto for almost a month now, and while most of my dining has been makani -- restaurant staff meals -- I've had a couple of chances to squeeze in some great dinners (details on my restaurant training soon). I've also learned about a bunch of other restaurant here, so I want to share this information. One of these days I'll be back in Kyoto with more time to dine, and get to try them all!
My favorite discovery this trip, thanks to my pal Nemo Glassman, has been Heikichi Negiya, or the "Heikichi Onion Shop." It's located in an historic two-story machiya, or traditional merchant's house, along the Takasegawa canal. And yes, the star attraction here is the onion, a nice, big, round onion, one that has been slowly, carefully--meticulously--grilled over binchotan charcoal for an hour or so, and served with a little miso on the side. Everything that Japanese cooking is about can be found in this perfect, sweet, delicate, luscious, fragrant, tender onion. The taisho, or owner, Chef Tsubaki, is a wonderful, outgoing guy who runs a relaxed, friendly place. Besides his onion, he serves a huge menu featuring Kyoto heirloom veggies, and has some of the best sake I've ever tried. When you go there, do what I did, and tell the taisho "omakase"-- chef's choice -- and let him serve you. This goes for the sake, too. You have to check out the Onion Shop. (Phone 075-342-4430, near the intersection of Shijo and Kawaramachi.) By the way, they also serve phenomenal ramen at lunch.
Nemo, who runs fantastic cultural programs at Origin Japan (that anyone visiting Kyoto should not miss), also recommends:
Giro giro, located in another machiya on the same canal
Yoshikawa Tempura, Nemo says "try to get a private room looking out at the garden, one of my favorite spots in Kyoto."
Isoya, young, hip crowd, great food
Honke Owariya, serving soba for 18 generations
Here are some other places I've heard about or seen in Japanese magazines but haven't tried -- yet:
Yoshiya on the Pontocho (a historic, narrow lane astride the Kamo River, where geisha houses have been converted into restaurants), Japanese kappo ryori--fine counter dining
Masuda on the Pontocho, obanzai cuisine (Kyoto's traditional home cooking)
Takara ramen on the Pontocho, shoyu ramen with chicken stock is supposed to be fantastic (the cooks at my restaurant swear by it -- good sign!)
Kawakami, a traditional, historic ryotei in the Gion that serves classic kaiseki cuisine
Usui, obanzai cuisine (075-351-1529)
Fumido, yakiton, that is, grilled pork (075-212-5135)
Inaseya, yakitori and hormo (intestines) (075-255-7250)
Dig up info these places online. And, hey, do you have any places to recommend in Kyoto? C'mon spill the azuki beans! Please leave your picks in the comments!
Finally, here are some photos from my meal at Heikichi: