Kichijoji’s Iseya is not only a yakitori classic, but also a Tokyo classic. Well loved, well known and much frequented it is, however, not all that it is purported to be.
Located at the top the flight of stone steps leading down into the leafy confines of Inokashira Park, opposite Toriyoshi and Gin no Saru (two other izakaya worthy of mention for their popularity if nothing else), Iseya Sohonten (the other recently sanitized and thus ruined iteration is nearby, somewhat closer to the station) billows smoke into the street by dint of the charcoal grills at the front of the shop churning out mountains of yakiton (skewered pork innards) for queues of expectant, hungry customers.
This yakitori-ya’s reputation precedes it. After all, it has been in business since 1928, first as a butcher’s shop and then from 1958 as a yakitori-ya, as the building and interior bare testament to. It’s dilapidated, dirty (just visit the toilets!), smokey and immensely “old skool.” Those that reside in these blessed isles, and those that live in Tokyo more so, and those that have a thing for “traditional izakaya” even more so, love this kind of decrepit hangover from “better days,” when Japan was more Japanese and Japanese cuisine, and thus izakaya more generally, had yet to be tainted by the culinary incursions of colonialists and “ethnic” dishes from the mysterious regions of Asia.
Admittedly, the old-style, basic aspect of the shop brings to mind a simpler, somehow more authentic, working-class dining experience. You can almost imagine occupation-era U.S. military types and pan-pan girls negotiating a night’s intimacy through the choking smog of smoking chicken fat. Don’t get me wrong; it’s all good stuff. Great fun. It’s just not what it’s cracked up to be. Very much a case of the Emperor’s new clothes.
The interior is all creaky floors, warped beams and stained, curling posters and menu slips. Service is to the point, hurried and for the most part amicable. Generally always heaving, you can book in advance, the atmosphere is lively, even raucous. Old-timers perch at the counter enveloped in smoke, while everyone else enjoys whatever bench they are awarded.
Drinks are limited. Beer, unnamed instantly forgettable sake, shochu (accompanied by plum syrup served in old whiskey bottles) and sours etc. The food menu is basic, mostly yakitori standards and other skewered morsels (read offal) derived from the carcasses of pigs. The sashimi is best avoided, as I hope you would expect.
And it is the food, not the whole point perhaps but still an important factor, that enjoys near mythical and utterly unjustified renown. It is, at best, passable. Sure, it’s cheap. Tastes okay, or at least doesn’t induce nausea. But is surpassed in both quality and quantity by a myriad of other yakitori-ya. Some dishes, the liver in particular, are especially bad. Presentation isn’t even considered, and is not made up for by the flavour. The stand out dish is easily the handmade gyoza, which for a shop famed for its skewered chicken and pork nankotsu is almost shameful.
Still, it is fun. A glimpse and, more than likely, a real taste of the past. A past before Michelin stars and restaurants aimed at monied expats. Go for the atmosphere, go for the surroundings, just don’t expect to go back for the food.
Upon hearing the sorry news of the venerable Iseya's impending closure (for rebuilding), it seemed sensible to go for one last look before its ramshackle, smoke-filled interior and particular atmosphere became nothing more than memory.
Of course, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, half of Tokyo had the very same idea. Even arriving at noon, the queue was lengthy, soon doubling back upon itself and suggesting a long wait. While Woody and Tobi-chan kept a place in the line, the rest of us took it easy for a while in bar Mishima (post pending).
Picking up some chilled beers on the way out of Mishima, we got in line and after three-quarters of an hour secured a table in the central conservatory-like ground floor dining hall.
The atmosphere, much helped by the shabby, somewhat austere furnishing and pealing walls, was still worth the trip, the patrons clearly all having a splendid time and the food (as mentioed above) fairly poor.
The yakitori, as ever, was secondary to the large, succelent gyoza and delicious, cruchy corn-on-the-cob. The Hoppy and shochu sets were perilous, and the nihonshu undrinkable (Woody eventually managed to smuggle in something more palatable).
Despite the rough fare, Iseya was a great location and immensely enjoyable, and will without doubt be long-missed, even when it reopens...