Another concept on the horizon is the Japanese izakaya. These rustic neighborhood taverns feature wide selections of beers, sakes and shochus (a vodka-like spirit), and small plates of food that range from steamed edamame and other bar snacks to sushi, tempura and grilled-meat skewers. Most dishes are designed to be shared, and prices generally are lower than those in more formal Japanese restaurants.
"Izakaya dining is an adventure in which you design your meal as the evening progresses, ordering dishes as the mood takes you," says Tokyo resident Mark Robinson, author of Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook due out in May in the USA. "It can sometimes be hit and miss, but the overall experience is deeply satisfying, and the misses don't really cost anything; in fact they add to your learning."
Casual, independently owned versions already have strong footholds in areas with large Japanese populations, such as New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, but chain versions with more varied and upscale food options may not be far off: Two successful izakaya franchises in Japan have opened versions in Seattle (Wann Izakaya) and Los Angeles (Torafuku).
More significantly, the U.S. company that created the national chain of P.F. Chang's China Bistro restaurants has tested the waters in Scottsdale, Ariz., with an izakaya-inspired concept called Taneko Japanese Tavern. The menu, which incorporates organic and seasonal ingredients, embraces several Japanese cooking styles and East-West hybrid dishes such as Kobe beef burgers and tempura fish and chips.
"The idea was to take the comfort aspects of American taverns and Japanese taverns and produce an izakaya," says Rick Federico, CEO of P.F. Chang's China Bistro. Though Federico says Taneko has been successful during its two-year run, it hasn't generated the high-volume business the company requires to launch it as a national chain. P.F. Chang's is selling a majority of its stake in Taneko back to the founding parties, who may try to tweak the approach.
"Taneko may have been a little early into the marketplace, but these types of restaurants will become increasingly popular," says Federico. "They offer new and interesting flavor profiles, and U.S. consumers are much more adventuresome than they were 10 years ago."