Here is the definitive list of the best restaurants in Kyoto divided by type of cuisine. I tried them all and can assure you that they are excellent and also comfortable with foreign guests.
The best Kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) in Kyoto
Kiyamachi Sakuragawa – Kyoto Center: Kiyamachi Sakuragawa is an accessible and excellent place to enter the world of Kaiseki cuisine.
This small kaiseki restaurant on a picturesque stretch of Kiyamachi-dori is a good place for kaiseki novices to enter the refined world of kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine). The chef chooses from the best ingredients available in season to make a flight of dishes that will dazzle the palate and please the eyes. We recommend that someone at your accommodation calls in advance to book and set up the budget.
Kitcho Arashiyama Honten: For the exaggerated free replacement kaiseki, Kitcho Arashiyama is THE place to go in Kyoto.
If money is not a problem, Kitcho Arashiyama, where a meal can cost Y40,000 per person, without drinks, is the obvious choice. The service, the setting, the ingredients, the preparation and the presentation are first class. If you are looking for a place to dine with geisha, this is a good bet.
The best sushi in Kyoto
Nakaichi Sushi-kappo: For elegant sushi, sashimi and a variety of side dishes, Nakaichi Sushi-kappo is one of the best choices in Kyoto.
Located in Gion, Sushi-kappo Nakaichi serves excellent sushi in refined surroundings. The word “kappo” refers to elegant, one-plate dishes (something like elegant Japanese tapas), and this should give you a hint that this place serves more than just fish on rice. Still, sushi is the main event here and it’s very good. Kyoto isn’t a sushi town like Tokyo, but if you crave some of the good stuff and have the budget to support it, Nakaichi is a good choice.
Sushisei: Sushisei is one of the best sushi restaurants at moderate prices in Kyoto. They’re relatively comfortable with foreigners and it’s right in the center.
One of the branches of Tokyo’s famous Sushisei chain, Sushisei in Kyoto, is where we go when we get a craving for casual sushi in the middle of the city. Sit at the counter and watch the chefs do their thing, or take a table with some friends. It’s easy to spot: it’s in the basement of the building across from the east side of the Daimaru department store.
Den Shichi: One of the best and most accessible sushi bars in Kyoto, Den Shichi serves delicious sushi in a classic sushi bar atmosphere.
Saiin, a rather indescribable neighborhood on the west side of Kyoto, is the last place you would expect to find an excellent sushi restaurant. But Den Shichi, located in the heart of Saiin, is one of the best and most accessible sushi restaurants in the city. Sure, there are better sushi bars in Kyoto, but many of them are out of reach for foreigners (not because of discrimination, simply because you need an introduction to a regular customer to get in).
I love this place because it has all the elements of a classic sushi bar: a long counter, itamae-san masters (sushi chefs) who shout “irrashaimasse” (Welcome!) when you enter, and deliciously tasty sushi and sashimi, along with some other dishes to complete the menu.
And, best of all, it’s much cheaper than similar places in cities like Tokyo. The only problem is this: the locals know very well what Den Shichi is worth, and you often have to wait to get in. We solved it by going early. Even if you have to wait in line, it’s worth the wait.
The best Yakitori in Kyoto
Sumibi-kushiyaki Bull: This is “haute yakitori” – yakitori dynamite (several pieces of chicken cooked on skewers) in a fashionable setting.
Yakitori restaurants are usually steaming pies filled with half-drunk employees who drink at Mild Sevens as if in some kind of secret competition with the chicken farmer to see who could produce the most smoke. Torito is a wonderful exception to this stereotype: it’s a small, stylish, narrow aisle of a restaurant where the chefs produce some incredible yakitori and a wide variety of related dishes.
I just wish it was easier to get to this place; you may have to wait a few minutes.
The best Soba / Udon in Kyoto
Omen – North Higashiyama: Just over the hill from Ginkaku-ji Temple, Omen is one of our favorite restaurants in Kyoto. They serve some of the best udon noodles in Kyoto.
Few restaurants manage to maintain high standards once they become immensely popular, but Omen has been doing so for years.
The name means “noodles,” and that is his signature dish: thick udon noodles, served with either hot or cold broth. But there is also a great a la carte menu with all kinds of excellent dishes to accompany his noodles, generally made with seasonal ingredients.
There are comfortable tatami seats on the ground floor, along with some counter seats that are good for single diners, and table seats for inflexible foreigners. With an English-language menu and friendly staff, it’s no wonder this place is a favorite among Kyoto’s long-term expatriate community. Just be careful: during the cherry blossom season, the line of tables will be outside the door.
Honke Owariya: Located in an old atmospheric wooden building, Honke Owariya is undoubtedly the best soba restaurant in all of Kyoto.
Honke Owariya is an extremely atmospheric place to enjoy a plate of soba (buckwheat noodles). The restaurant is extremely popular with the locals, so arrive early or be prepared to wait. Dishes here range from simple bowls of noodles to complete sets with all the trimmings. Most of the seats are on the tatami floors around the low tables, so if you have knee problems you might want to look elsewhere for your soba solution.
The best Shokudo / All Round restaurants in Kyoto
Ganko Sanjo Honten: A great sushi specialist downtown, Ganko Sushi is one of the most affordable and accessible sushi places in Kyoto.
There’s nothing subtle about Ganko Sushi: the windows are full of eye-catching models of food, and the whole place screams “tourist trap. And, to tell the truth, the place is quite crowded with tourists (but some locals go there too).
The fact is that the food here is quite good. The sushi sets are very reasonably priced, and are an easy option. But you’ll get much better sushi (and pay a little more) if you order sushi à la carte (piece by piece).
Always sushi à la carte here and the bill rarely exceeds Y2500. In addition to sushi, you can choose from a wide variety of Japanese classics, including good quality prepared meals and children’s meals.
There are smoking and non-smoking rooms, and this is one of the most child-friendly restaurants in Kyoto: it is spacious, noisy, and there are special children’s meals for those who eat delicately. Best of all, there is a full menu in English (as well as several other languages). So, if you don’t mind eating with lots of other tourists, give Ganko a try.
Ootoya Gohan: The Ootoya chain is a great new addition to the Japanese food scene. They have smart, clean interiors, picture/english menus, fast food kitchens, and serve all the standard dishes you would expect from an old school shokudo (restaurant everywhere). This branch in Sanjo is a very convenient stop for lunch.
Best vegetarian restaurants in Kyoto
Falafel Garden: A great vegetarian restaurant in northern Kyoto, Falafel Garden specializes in the falafel of the same name, but there’s much more on the menu to keep things interesting.
With a hippy atmosphere and a friendly owner, Falafel Garden is a relaxing place for a healthy lunch while you explore things near the northern end of town.
It is just a few steps from Demachiyanagi Station, which is served by the Keihan and Eizan lines. Within walking distance you will find Kyoto University and the Kamo-gawa River. There is a picture menu and the owner is fluent in English.
Biotei: Biotei is like a good vegetarian restaurant tucked into a dollhouse by a spiral staircase. Sure, it’s narrow: but the food is good.
Right in the middle of the city centre (malicious corner of the main post office in Nakagyo-ku Cental), at the top of a winding flight of stairs, Biotei is a vegetarian institution in Kyoto.
While living in the city, my herbivorous friends have been getting into this joint for nutritious lunch sets and a generally modern atmosphere (look at the messages on the walls for all sorts of interesting causes). While you can order an a la carte menu in English, most diners opt for the good value and filling of prepared foods.
Tousuiro: If you think you know tofu, think again! The artisans at this famous Kyoto tofu restaurant chain make more with tofu than I thought possible.
Hidden on a narrow bank of Kiyamachi-dori, the road that runs along the canal just west of the Kamo-gawa River, Tosuiro is a well-kept secret among Kyoto’s vegetarians and their bean-eating friends. The atmosphere is classically Kyoto and the food is divine. As far as we’re concerned, it’s tofu kaiseki, because it consists of a flight of interesting dishes, each cleverly presented. In the summer, you may be lucky enough to take a seat on the outdoor terrace overlooking the Kamo-gawa River – highly recommended!
The best coffee shops in Kyoto
Prinz Cafe – Kyoto Central: Possibly the best and most modern cafe in Kyoto, the Prinz Cafe is well worth the long trip to get there, especially if you have a bicycle.
Lugol: Lugol is a nice, modern café for a quick cup while you are on the north side of downtown Kyoto. In addition to the usual coffee drinks, they serve some light, mostly European, meals.
Café Bibliotic: Even if it didn’t have this wonderfully quirky name, I would still love this super-modern Kyoto coffee. It’s built into a machiya and the owner has a wickedly good design sense.
Best tempura in Kyoto
Yoshikawa Tempura: Yoshikawa Tempura serves the best tempura in Kyoto in a beautiful old wooden building built around a sublime Japanese garden.