In a basement near Tokyo Station, you’ll find a line of Japanese businesspeople, young Instagrammers, and Westerners. They’re not waiting for in-demand sushi or a bowl of ramen. Nope, these people are waiting for bagels and pastrami sandwiches.
Since its opening on February 26, 2018, the Tokyo offshoot of San Francisco–based deli and bagel shop Wise Sons has been killing it in the Japanese capital—but getting it off the ground wasn’t easy, according to owner Evan Bloom.
First, he had to find a “fixer” who would set him up with a management company. Next, the fixer and her colleagues tried Wise Sons’ food in San Francisco. They loved it, but there was no space available in their buildings in Tokyo. Then, a few months later, in July 2017, the fixer called back—they had a space! Bloom was to provide his recipes and be on a plane to Tokyo for a tasting in three weeks.
“We packed pastrami and corned beef in a suitcase because at that time they weren’t equipped to prepare it just yet,” Bloom says, noting that bringing beef into Japan isn’t exactly legal.
“We packed pastrami and corned beef in a suitcase because at that time they weren’t equipped to prepare it just yet,” Bloom says, noting that bringing beef into Japan isn’t exactly legal. “We vacuum sealed it, and I printed out stickers with a picture of a pig and the word ‘pork’ in Japanese, and I stuck it on the packages. They didn’t open it, and they got through.”
At the tasting, he was amazed at the quality of the bagels, a food that’s not common in Japan. “They followed the recipe to a T, matching the flour and everything,” he says. The company took Bloom and his team on a tour of the 70-year-old factory that would be producing the pastrami and corned beef. They worked with an architect to draft plans that would look exactly like the San Francisco Mission location.
So, how did everything end up for Wise Sons Tokyo? “Everything is perfect,” says Bloom. “It’s like being on a Wise Sons movie set—it’s exactly the same, but you just know it’s not in the States.” There are still kinks to work out, but they’re the same kinks that occur when opening a restaurant in San Francisco, Bloom says. Well, mostly.
“Most of the employees have never cooked food like this,” he says. “Nobody had actually used a grill spatula before, or cooked on a flat-top grill. They were using teppanyaki spatulas, which couldn’t pick up the sandwiches.” Bloom also thinks the bagels are made slightly softer to accommodate the Japanese palate. And the pastrami? “It’s really good! I was impressed by it. But the smoked salmon they’re producing is really phenomenal.”
All this testing and development leading up to the opening meant that Bloom was flying back and forth between San Francisco and Tokyo—a lot. The silver lining? He got to know Tokyo’s food scene like a local. Here are his nine favorite places to eat (after Wise Sons’ Tokyo location, of course).
“This tiny yakitori joint is where most of the famous yakitori chefs train. Rumor has it, there are beds in the back for the chefs to rest since there are people breaking down chickens 24 hours of the day. They only serve chicken, and you can get any part. The only thing I didn’t try is the fertilized egg. We skipped that. Liver, kneecap, shoulder, heart—we ate everything else. It’s a place where everyone gets drunk and just has a great time.”
“In the hipster Nakameguro neighborhood, this restaurant is most famous for a play on the McDonald’s filet o’ fish. In fact, their mascot is a tatted-up Ronald McDonald. But the tempura eel ‘hot dog’ is a winner, too. And it was amazing: a pillow-soft bun with a long piece of tempura eel topped with a ton of sliced scallions and the eel sauce you’d get with sushi. The guys that own the place are accomplished chefs.”
Park Hyatt Breakfast Buffet
“The Park Hyatt breakfast buffet is worth the splurge! It’s one of the best breakfasts anywhere, buffet or not. It’s on the 30th floor so you have an amazing view. They make everything in-house and it just feels so luxurious. It’s a good thing to do when you first get to Tokyo. You drink a bunch of coffee, get your bearings, pull out your maps, and take in the city from above. I’m also a sucker for Japanese scrambled eggs, which are amazingly rich and scrambled uber-soft, and they do those well.”
“This is a small chain that only serves rare-beef katsu. Each diner gets a personal iron grill so they can cook the crispy, fried slices of beef to their desired temperature. It’s served with rice, soy dipping sauce, wasabi, and a few types of flaky salt. It is silky perfection. It’s located in a basement and usually has a long line. It’s a bargain at around $15 per person.”
“This coffee shop is actually a chain from Norway with homey midcentury furniture and a super cozy vibe. They serve fantastic coffee in the daytime and awesome cocktails at night. Try the Scandinavian Negroni with Aquavit over a fresh-cut ice cube.”
“This restaurant’s crispy pork katsu comes in two options: lean or fatty. Obviously, people come for the much juicier fatty one. Ask to sit at the counter to watch the methodical way they crank out perfect fried pork. The meat is served perfectly crispy, juicy, and is not greasy at all. All the pork scrap is made into broth, apparent in the incredibly rich miso soup they serve before your meal.”
“Go to this place to experience old-school Western-influenced Japanese food, which is called yōshoku. Think hamburger steaks with demi-glace, omelets, and spaghetti. It’s a really awesome, nostalgic experience. This is one of the most famous places for this kind of food. They also have a cool bar, where you should order a whiskey highball. All the chefs are wearing matching uniforms with the French-style tall hats. It’s in Osakusa, which is a very touristy neighborhood with lots of temples.”
“Skip the mediocre, pricey sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market and opt for a little lunch counter called Odayasu that specializes in fried and grilled homestyle seafood. You’ll rub elbows with workers from Tsukiji. No English is spoken here, so just point to a photo on the wall. I always get the grilled tuna that comes with tartar sauce and a lemon with a side of fried oysters. Don’t forget a cold beer to wash it all down.”
“Camelback Sandwich is the brainchild of former hipster sushi chefs who spent some time in Arizona and became obsessed with sandwiches. Everything is made perfectly and they take a ton of time to make sure they get it right. The restaurant is most famous for the simple, warm tamago omelet sandwich on a squishy buttery bun, but the prosciutto with shiso, butter, and yuzu zest on a mini baguette is also excellent. It was one of the most amazing sandwiches I’ve ever had. It’s in this hipster neighborhood in Shibuya called Tomigaya. There’s a bunch of cool little restaurants and bakeries in this area.”
Armed with this list next time you’re in Tokyo, your meals—and your bagel needs—will be taken care of. Don’t forget the smoked salmon.