The restaurants in my Fine Dining & Cheap Grub series tend to be available throughout Japan, or at least in major cities. Beyond those are a handful of restaurants that are either only found in one region, are few in number, or unique.
Greater Japan (全国)
Rairaitei (来来停): I’ve mentioned this chain on more than one occasion, because it’s a friendly ramen shop with good food. It doesn’t seem to be as widespread as other chains, but it’s worth visiting for their しょうゆ ramen. The menu is fairly diverse, but I rarely have access to a Rairaitei, so I tend to stick to what I like.
Kantou (関東) Region
Shibuya Niku-yokochou (渋谷肉横丁): Not so much one restaurant as seventeen, all squeezed into a spacious second floor of a building (plus six more on a newly-opened third floor as of fall 2015). Some have actual walls, others define their borders less clearly. The atmosphere is incredibly casual, much more so than I’m used to in Japan. It seems to be a pseudo-secret, too, since I rarely see foreigners there. One nice thing is that you can order food from more than one place and have it all served at a single restaurant (for a small additional charge). Everyone there is really friendly as well, and there’s a sense of camaraderie among all of the employees. I’ve only tried a couple of the restaurants (based on menu and price), but my personal favorite is Devil (デビル), a very small Brazilian-style place not too far from the door. Devil serves small plates of meat, a handful of beers and spirits, and even features small desserts. They also seem to have the friendliest staff, which was half the reason I tried them first. Be aware that Niku-Yokochou is not a no-smoking establishment. Frugal diners, be advised: individual dishes tend to be reasonably-priced, and the food is delicious, but a full meal’s worth will quickly add up.
The Great Burger: Tucked away on a side street in Harajuku, this is one of a handful of American-style burger restaurants you can find in Japan. If you’re tired of anemic Japanese hamburgers and want something more substantial, you can find it here — though the prices will reflect it. Burgers come with either shoestring fries or potato wedges, and the menu also offers hot dogs, sandwiches, and beer. The final touch is a streamed classic rock or country radio station from Palm Springs for atmosphere.
Chili Dog C.O.D.: Sausages in Japan are not that great. Hot dogs in particular tend to be skinny and have tough casings, which takes away from the enjoyment. Not so at Chili Dog C.O.D., a place I learned about when I tried a couple of their dogs outside a bar on New Year’s. They’re located a few blocks from the station in Gaienmae, on Killer Street. It’s not a full sit-down restaurant, just a long counter with stools and sliding doors behind that are open or closed based on the weather. The dogs themselves are huge and come with a variety of topping combinations, though they’re not cheap (as you’d imagine). They have a small selection of beers, but be warned — they also have a modest selection of affordable cigarettes, so you may have to endure smokers. My favorite is the chili cheese dog — which is messy but delicious — and I can usually put away two of them before calling it quits.
Vendor Kitchen: A very small chain — four stores, three of which are in Yokohama — Vendor Kitchen specializes in “chicken over rice,” specifically grilled chicken with sauce over turmeric rice. You prepay for your meal and get your own water, but if you eat in, a free cup of onion soup is included with your order. Not only is it good, it’s not expensive. When I first started this entry, you could get a meal for as low as 500円, but they eventually increased all their prices by 100円. Even so, it’s a lot of food for a low price, and I’ve never left there unsatisfied. Tamachi has the only Tokyo store, but it generally seems to be gaijin-free.
Pizza Olive: This is a small, walk-up pizza chain found in train stations and shopping centers, and exclusive to Kanagawa (though as of this writing, they just opened a store in the newly-remodeled Keikyuu Kamata Station). Pizza Olive specializes in pizza by the half, though you can always buy their standard M (10″) pie. They often pre-bake halves for quick sale, and you can sometimes find a heated cart located outside their location selling a handful of premade halves as well. (My personal favorite is the Mexican.)
Chuubu (中部) Region
Sugakiya: This chain of affordable ramen shops is an Aichi-only feature. The food is low-cost and tastes good, with a simple menu and seasonal dishes to choose from. While they specialize in ramen, they also have a selection of shaved ice. If you don’t want to use chopsticks, be sure to check out their wacky tined spoons.
Lee’s Taiwan Kitchen (李さんの台湾名物屋台): This is a chain of walk-up restaurants almost entirely located in the Nagoya area that specializes in spicy 唐揚げ (fried boneless chicken), as well as shrimp dango and boba (bubble) tea. I say almost entirely because there may or may not be branches in Osaka and Tokyo (and if there’s one here, it’s too far away.
Kansai (関西) Region
Rich Garden: Located more or less between Amerikamura and Doutonbori, this American-style burger restaurant has a broad menu, mostly variations on a “what can I put on this hamburger to make it even better” theme, plus a handful of imported beers to complete the experience. (Side note: The owner of this place is the one who suggested The Great Burger in Tokyo (q.v.) to me.)