Just over a decade ago, when Michelin produced its first Guide Rouge for Tokyo, it surprised almost nobody who knew the city when it scored off the charts.
In the 2020 guide, Tokyo has an even deeper haul of 11 three-starred restaurants, among a total of 226 starred establishments. Overall, the Japanese capital holds more of the French benchmark of restaurant excellence than any city in the world.
So everyone knows by now that finding a great restaurant in Tokyo is not difficult.
But when it comes to booking the perfect spot for power-dining, there are more criteria at stake: the need to impress — or even subtly overwhelm — the guest with something more than the food; the need to be seen, or not; the need for simplicity of ordering, so that it is no more than a momentary interruption and gives everyone the feeling they are decisive problem solvers.
Above all, the choice of venue should exude a sense of having “cracked” the world’s restaurant capital, even if everyone around the table is too polite to acknowledge that such a task is impossible.
There are, self-evidently, more than five places in Tokyo that can achieve this and the line-up might vary significantly depending on which part of the city you are limited to and whether the affair is a lunch or dinner.
Assuming you are going for a power lunch, here are my favourites.
1. Nagatacho Kurosawa
2-7-9 Nagatacho, Chiyoda City, Tokyo 100-0014
- Good for: feeling in with the in crowd
- Not so good for: a drawn-out lunch
- FYI: book well in advance
There are two truly satisfying things about taking a guest to this small restaurant round the corner from the prime minister’s official residence in Nagatacho.
Nestled away, it looks incongruously like a traditional Japanese home. The place is named in honour of Akira Kurosawa — not only Japan’s most celebrated film director but a towering figure in world cinema. That, along with multiple references to his works in the restaurant itself, makes for a handy icebreaker.
Invoke the creator of Seven Samurai as a neutral topic of discussion to keep things light but refined in that conversational no man’s land between the menus being retrieved by the waiter and the real subject of the lunch being raised.
The first joy is the food itself — traditional, unfussy but perfectly prepared Japanese fare that gives the distinct sense that the cooks love their job.
At lunch you probably want to opt for the handmade soba noodles for which the place is best known. Yes, it’s a dish that requires a little bit of experience to slurp, but that is all to your advantage if the underlying tactic is to ooze humble expertise.
The restaurant’s second joy is its clientele — politicians, their supplicants and their apparatchiks. There is no need to make much of this fact, merely to quietly relish the fact that your lunchtime conversation is, in common with those of your fellow diners, of immense importance to the future of Japan.
7-2-10 Roppongi, Minato City, Tokyo 106-0032
- Good for: overwhelming the opposition
- Not so good for: any form of work after lunch
- FYI: watch and learn from the teppan master
Hama is a wood-panelled, uncompromisingly beefy arena for the discreet power lunch. It lies a stone’s throw from the banks, law firms and private equity houses dotted around Roppongi.
Arrive separately from your guest to allow them to feel the heft of the front door, the thickly carpeted walk to the private rooms and the slightly Remains of the Day welcome for themselves, and the oaky tone will be set for the next couple of hours.
The food — the highest-end Japanese teppanyaki steak — is generally associated with a bit of theatre. The traditional set-up places the chef at the centre of an arcing metal grill, with diners seated at the counter facing him — but not each other.
There is an art to conducting a power lunch without the requirement of constant eye-contact with a co-diner, but the licence provided by the ever-distracting teppan make it feel natural.
The various teppan masters know they performing, and that there is an inherent fascination with the sight of cooking at its highest level. In some teppan establishments, the chef plays up to this with twirls of the knife and other showmanship.
Hama, meanwhile, is more about confident skill and quiet authority — the qualities you acknowledge with a nod as your guest quietly realises they will never taste a better steak.
Chanel Ginza Building 10F, 3-5-3 Ginza, Chuo City, Tokyo 104-0061
- Good for: feeling pampered
- Not so good for: fretting over the name of the celebrity at the next table
- FYI: the menu is elegant French cuisine
Tokyo’s Ginza district is the unrivalled champion of the high-level night out. Its hidden bars, exclusive clubs and exquisite restaurants are the pinnacle of Japan’s notoriously expensive and intricately plotted post-work working culture.
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For the power lunch, however, the choice must be Beige — a name that manages to straddle all languages as a benchmark of mundaneness but is actually wonderful. Particularly if the guest is a slightly older Japanese person who enjoys the adrenalin rush of spotting celebrities they cannot quite put a name to.
Alain Ducasse’s restaurant sits on the 10th floor of the Chanel building in the heart of Ginza — not vertiginous, but elevated and haute couture enough to lend a superior feel to proceedings as the petits fours appear.
There are several set lunch menus, each the very definition of a low-responsibility, high-reward experience for the diner.
But the presentation sets things apart: stunningly elegant and exactly what you need for the kind of lunch where you want each new course to generate a small intake of breath and a natural spot to shift gears and get to the business discussion you came here for.
4. The Café by Aman
Otemachi Tower, 1-5-6 Otemachi, Chiyoda City, Tokyo 100-0004
- Good for: a stealth quiche in a business context
- Not so good for: a rumbling stomach
- FYI: go back in the evening to dine outdoors among the trees
Many might dismiss The Café by Aman — set in its own miniature forest in the centre of the financial district — as too gimmicky for a power lunch. Others might argue that serious discussion, schmoozing or negotiation cannot be held over quiche, tartine or galletes.
All of them would, of course, be wrong. The clue with this small but perfectly formed establishment, which is part of the Aman Tokyo hotel, is how difficult it is to secure a booking. Offering someone lunch here (best for two people) is a signal of your smooth management of Tokyo’s social bottlenecks.
The food — described as “casual French fare” — is both light and intense. Ideologically, you are the kind of power-diner who knows lunch is for wimps, but also that we gave that nonsense up decades ago and are ravenous by noon.
This is the perfect compromise. After a while, the little forest is rather conducive to a quiet, contemplative discussion.
2-10-3 Nagatacho, Chiyoda City, Tokyo 100-0014
- Good for: VIP spotting
- Not so good for: the true gourmet
- FYI: opens at 6.30am for those who prefer a power breakfast
The point with Origami is not the food, which is merely good. Or the immediate setting, which is in the humdrum Capitol Hotel Tokyu.
No, the point, for better or worse, is that this is the power-dining magnetic north of Tokyo — a place to be seen power-dining, to spot other power-diners or, with a bit of finesse, to amplify your status by not giving a damn about either.
Origami owes these qualities to its location next to Japan’s parliament and close to the country’s beating bureaucratic heart.
Whether you recognise them or not, senior politicians and officials abound here. To dine among them is to take your guest to the nexus of Japan’s decision-making.
What are your favourite places for a power lunch in Tokyo? Or in any of our other FT Globetrotter cities? The best tips entered into our super-quick survey here will be published soon. Or join in the conversation in comments below