The highest-rated izakaya in the country, Shokudo Todaka, scores 3.88 on Tabelog (on Google it’s 4.5).
It is very rare for an eatery of any kind to have a score over 3.5 on Tabelog. The absolute best restaurant in the country, an impossibly high-end sushi joint called Sugita where set meals cost about $800 a head, and where you won’t get a booking no matter how hard you try unless you know the chef (and let’s face it, you don’t know the chef), scores 4.71. That is a phenomenally high score on Tabelog.
The reason for this is that when Japanese diners post online reviews, they don’t go too crazy. They don’t hand out five-star reviews to places they just really liked. That’s a wildly high score that leaves you no room to move on your next restaurant – like, what if it’s better, and you’ve already given somewhere else five stars? The next five stars means nothing.
So, generally, you don’t give out five-star reviews. You also, generally, don’t give out one-star reviews – particularly not for the insane reasons you see them dished out on the likes of TripAdvisor or Google, where people discover the restaurant isn’t open on the night they want to visit, or it’s booked out, and so they vent their frustration with the harshest possible review for a venue they’ve never even visited.
I would say that every country needs a Tabelog, but that’s not strictly true, because every country already has one. Or its equivalent. What every country needs is the Japanese mindset towards reviewing.
Hold your fire on five-star reviews. Give four for places you loved. Three for places that are just doing a nice job and that you will return to. Two if you think they need to lift their game and you probably won’t come back.
If you can trust everyone to do this – and trust them to know what they’re doing when they assess these places – you end up with Tabelog, a vast and hugely useful resource not just for residents in Japan, but visitors too.
If a restaurant in Japan scores more than 3.5 stars on Tabelog, you know it’s seriously good. If a restaurant in Japan scores more than 4.5 stars on Google, meanwhile, all you know is that it’s popular with foreigners.
There are all sorts of other useful functions on Tabelog. You can plug in your location – your exact location, not just a neighbourhood or city – set your search radius to however far you feel like travelling, and Tabelog will list the best restaurants around you at that time.
You can filter those results to only show you ramen restaurants, or sushi joints, or katsu places, or any style or price-point you like. That’s incredibly useful for travellers looking for a good meal in a place they’re unfamiliar with.
(The bulk of Tabelog’s content, by the way, is in Japanese only – however, click an icon on the top right-hand side of your browser, if you’re using Chrome, and Google will do a decent job of translating the page for you.)
True foodie obsessives, meanwhile, can study Tabelog’s “Hyakumeiten”, its annual lists of the 100 best restaurants in a variety of categories. The ramen hyakumeiten is probably the most popular and most talked about, but there are also top 100s for the likes of sushi, yakitori, tempura and even curry.
These top 100 lists are curated by Tabelog’s most trusted reviewers (rather than industry professionals), and they’re huge news in Japan. Dedicated local diners go on pilgrimages around the country in order to eat at all 100 of their chosen style.
It would be nice if every country had this level of obsession, this attention to detail, these deeply considered reviews, this passion for cuisine. Until then, however, we’ve always got Japan.