Monday, July 21, 2008


America’s food culture has been known to be unabashedly ostentatious when it comes to portioning. In a culture where “thinking big” means more than just stepping out of the “proverbial” box, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this notion could (and would) extend into every aspect of the average American’s way-of-life. From cars to houses, day trips to huge vacations, small weddings to over-the-top ones… it’s almost become a pre-req to have to think and plan BIG. This is no different when it comes to food consumption.

The powers behind our “super size this” kind of world has promoted a “big plate” culture for decades. Every place from the neighborhood McDonald’s to the always-crowded Grand Lux Café seems to glorify the “big plate” phenomenon. It’s a notion that has consumers teetering between feelings of food-contentment and food-disgust. While a good portion of the American public relishes in the frenzy of paying less for more food, the culture of dining with proportionate servings (at moderate prices) finds itself more alluring to those who enjoy the tastes, flavors, and smells of carefully prepared cuisine (as opposed to the overflowing quantity of mediocre food). But even in the world of fine dining, tastes and flavors have transcended through the era of big plates to today’s popular (and growing) “small plate” culture.

Small plates have been a big part of dining traditions for ages. An easy example would be Chinese dim sum, a wide range of light dishes often served alongside tea. As dim sum came to make a name for itself in popular American food culture, it also opened the doors for similar food customs from other regions of the world: tapas from Spain, meze from the Mediterranean, and – in more recent times – izakaya food from Japan. While tapas and meze have already enjoyed much success in many parts of the country, the izakaya wave has splashed onto the American dining scene so swift that it is whetting more than a few appetites.

For those still in the dark about izakaya, it is – traditionally – a type of Japanese “drinking” establishment, also offering food accompaniments to their drinks. The food is generally more substantial than typical “bar” fare, and the experience at a typical izakaya tends to be relatively inexpensive. The word itself is a compound consisting of “I,” which means “to remain,” and “sakaya,” or “sake shop.” This suggests that izakaya traces its origins from certain sake shops which allowed customers an extended period to remain and drink. Menu items include drinks (beer, cocktails, sake, shochu, and wine), and small dishes including sashimi, tofu, edamame, and karaage (bite-sized fried chicken). Often times, robata-style items such as kushiyaki (grilled meat or vegetable skewers) and yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) are also offered.

“Sharing” is one of the key ideas behind the modern-day izakaya. Much in the same way that Spaniards indulge in tapas for social settings, or how Filipinos enjoy pulutan alongside drinks, the Japanese head to an izakaya after work hours, or for social gatherings on weekends. It is essentially a place to go for drinks, light food, and great company.

The LA-area has enjoyed a plethora of izakaya-style spots popping up all over. Innovative Dining Group (Boa, Sushi Roku, Katana, LuckyFish) opened Robata Bar on trendy Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, specializing in robatayaki. Heading East from Santa Monica, you will hit Zu Robata along restaurant-filled Wilshire Boulevard; nestled around where the Sawtelle and Brentwood neighborhoods meet. Not too far from there, on busy Santa Monica Boulevard, is Sasaya. Past Beverly Hills, and the La Cienega dining corridor, is Izakaya by Katsu-ya on 3rd Street. And then traveling downtown to Little Tokyo you will find Izayoi. With more to add to what seems to be a growing roster, the izakaya culture of Los Angeles has proven past the old cliché that “less is more.”

Robata Bar 1401 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica 90401, 310-458-4771
Zu Robata 12217 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, 90025, 310.579.1920
Sasaya 11613 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Los Angeles 90025, 310.477.4404
Izakaya by Katsu-ya 8420 W. 3rd Street, Los Angeles 90048, 323.782.9536
Izayoi 132 S. Central Avenue, Los Angeles 90012, 213.613.9554

Photo from Kirala Sushi Bar & Robata Grill's website. Thank you!

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