Ever since my first trip to Japan, I’ve made it a point to try interesting-looking, affordable restaurants. If I like them, I try to go back when I can. I’m by no means rich, so I tend to stick to less-expensive places, but I have found a few higher-class establishments where I can be both frugal and satisfied. Here is a list of my personal recommendations from the affordable end of the spectrum.
Sukiya (すき屋) and Yoshinoya (吉野家): If you visit Japan, you’ll see these two places pretty frequently. Sukiya is a low-cost donburi joint that specializes in quick service and affordable-but-satisfying food. They keep a fairly broad menu without deviating from the basic theme. It’s hard not to mention Yoshinoya in the same breath as Sukiya, since they’re similar in their offerings and ubiquity, but I find that Yoshinoya’s more-focused menu tastes just a little better. You can very easily eat here for under 500円 and walk away perfectly satisfied. One more plus is that you order your food from a person, at least in the branches I’ve visited.
Matsuya (松屋), Tokyo Chikara Meshi (東京チカラめし), Nakau (なか卯): Beef-bowl restaurants are as common in Japan as pizza places in America, and their competitive past has resulted in all of them being pretty reasonably priced. While all three of these serve similar fare to one another (and to Sukiya and Yoshinoya), they have minor menu differences that keep them from being exactly the same. You generally have to order from a machine, though.
MOS Burger: MOS would probably be the Japanese McDonald’s if McDonald’s wasn’t already the dominant burger joint here. They serve a variety of burgers with different toppings, sides, and soft drinks — much like any burger place, but not exactly the same. I can’t quite explain why I prefer MOS to McD’s, except maybe that MOS is a home-grown chain and McD’s is not. They often have a smoking section, but in those cases, it’s partitioned off.
Lotteria: The inventors of the shrimp cutlet burger (which has since been homogenized into Japanese fast-food culture), Lotteria is a burger restaurant founded in Tokyo by a Korean conglomerate. They have a wide array of limited-time sandwiches — for instance, I’ve seen a five-patty cheeseburger (which is generally sold at the end of the month), a curry-and-vegetables burger, and a ramen-patty sandwich — but what sets their menu apart is a broad selection of sides and desserts, and their regular burgers all come with うまみート (savory meat sauce), giving them a signature taste. Lotteria has replaced MOS as my favorite burger joint, and it’s lucky for my waistline that there isn’t one close to my apartment. [EDIT 2/20: Lotteria seems to have increased prices on their menu across the board by about 30円. They’re still affordable, just slightly less so.]
Hidakaya (日高屋): This is a common chain of Chinese restaurants that primarily deals in ramen, gyoza, and chahan. (In fact, one of their dishes includes some of all three, appropriately dubbed ラ･ギョウ･チャ.) It may not be the highest-quality fare, but it tastes good and won’t hurt when it comes time to pay. I personally prefer the 温玉旨辛ラーメン (spicy ramen with ground beef and a soft-boiled egg). [EDIT 2/23: Sometime in the last week, they stopped selling my favorite ramen. I’m sorely bummed.]
Gyouza no Oushou (餃子の王将): Oushou is another chain of low-cost Chinese restaurants serving ramen, gyoza, and chahan, though somewhat less common than Hidakaya. Compared to their competitor, Oushou features large combo meals, and their fried rice is delicious (particularly their 極王チャーハン).
Ichiran (一蘭): One of the two ramen chains that specializes in Hakata ramen, Ichiran has become one of my favorite restaurants in Japan, replacing Rairaitei as my favorite ramen shop. It’s the best I’ve ever had, hands down. You order from a machine, then get seated in what looks like a library carrell, where you fill out a short form that determines how you want your ramen (spicy, oily, garlicky, etc). The front of your carrell has a window into a hallway from which they take your order ticket and survey, then return with your food. There’s a water dispenser at each seat, so refills are simple. The menu itself is pretty focused — Hakata ramen and various things to add to it — but that’s not a bad thing. It doesn’t seem to be popular with Westerners, possibly due to the outside signs being written entirely in Japanese. One drawback: Rather than napkins, you wipe your mouth (or whatever) with tissues from boxes mounted on the wall behind you.
Torikizoku (鳥貴族): This is my other favorite restaurant in Japan. They mostly deal in yakitori — grilled chicken on skewers — but they have a pretty diverse menu. Everything you order– food, drinks, salads — is 280円. Be careful, though — that can add up pretty fast. There’s a lively, friendly atmosphere, but be warned: smoking is allowed (and common) there. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any foreigners at a Torikizoku who weren’t staff (or with me).
CoCo Ichibanya (CoCo壱番屋): A chain of Japanese curry houses, CoCoIchi may specialize in one thing, but the options are pretty broad. You choose what you want in your curry, and can alter the amount of rice and how spicy or sweet the sauce is to your liking. (Be careful, though: Their spice rating isn’t one-for-one. 5辛 is more like 12x, as I learned the hard way.) It’s fairly affordable as well as tasty, which is why I have a hard time resisting its call.
Pepper Lunch: A relatively-small chain, Pepper Lunch serves partially-cooked beef, vegetables, and rice on a hot plate, allowing you to cook your meat as much or as little as you like. This being Japan, you’ll be paying a lot if you want a lot of beef, but they do have a relatively-inexpensive “Service Steak” plate. Smaller restaurants have you order from a machine, but a Pepper Lunch Diner — which also features wine — will have someone to take your order. There’s something to be said for ordering a plate of sizzling beef, and I find myself going more often lately. It doesn’t seem to be popular with foreigners. (If you’re looking for more meat, you can also visit Pepper Lunch’s big brother, Ikinari Steak, but be prepared to pay more as well.)