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Japanese place to take a Japanese student?

  • t

My daughter is coming home from her college in the boonies this weekend with her roommate, a Japanese exchange student. Any recommendations for a good Japanese place to take them for a nice dinner? Among other things, I'm sure she'd like to be able to speak Japanese with the waitstaff.



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  1. Why Japanese for a Japanese? Our Americanized Japanese cuisine may not live up to her expectations. How about something different like...American Continental, New American, or Greek, Persian, Italian, French, etc.
    Spring, Custom House, Alinea, Sola, Avenues, Santorini or Greek Islands, Blackbird, etc.

    1. Funny, I was thinking the same thing when I saw this post. Unless she specifically requested Japanese cuisine, why not treat her to something indigenous to the Chicago area. I know that if I were to travel to Japan, I wouldn't necessarily seek out a Chicago-style dining experience.

      That said, I have heard good things about Chiyo Japanese Restaurant (formerly Matsumoto) at 3800 W. Lawrence in terms of its authenticity and quality of the food.

      1. Maybe you guys missed the last half of the OP's post.

        "Among other things, I'm sure she'd like to be able to speak Japanese with the waitstaff."

        It's an exchange student that's been here for awhile that is the guest in question. I know that when I lived in Paris for 6 months or Tokyo for 6 months, I'd get a little homesick and LOVED running into an American to speak English with. JMO. You might try Ginza Fish, a nice sushi place downstairs at the Tokyo Hotel. Don't let the outside fool you, when you go inside you are transported to Tokyo.

        1. Naniwa (Ohio and Wells) would be a good place to try for Japanese-speaking waitstaff.

          If that is your main criteria, avoid the Streeterville and Old Town locatations of Kamehachi. Very good food, but I've only had non-Asian waiters and waitresses there.

          1. If it doesn't have to be located in the city core, I'd recommend Renga-Tei in Lincolnwood for their homecook style along with a Japanese-speaking staff. If the student misses being around other Japanese nationals, Mitsuwa Marketplace in Arlington Heights would be a good place to hang around. You can eat at the food court (food is just OK but there's a good selection), stock up on Japanese groceries and baked goods (Pastry House Hippo) and browse the bookstore. The bakery is good enough reason to visit, IMO.

            3 Replies
            1. re: Wolfy_sm

              I agree that Renga-Tei would be good for Japanese home-style food. Another place that is popular with Japanese-Americans is the Sunshine Cafe on Clark street. It is not very fancy, but usually has many Japanese patrons dining there. Kuni's in Evanston might also be good. For a more upscale meal, there is always Katsu.

              1. re: Roger Spark

                There are often Japanese-speaking folks at Kuni's, but I think Kuni may at times be the only Japanese-speaking employee (maybe Mrs. Kuni speaks Japanese?). That being said, the sushi is very good - but apparently is "Osaka style". We know at least one Japanese fellow who really doesn't like Kuni's because of this. I guess it's like pizza - you probably prefer the kind you grew up on :)

                1. re: leek

                  Interesting. I did not know about the "Osaka" thing, but that makes sense. Kuni's was the first place I ever ate sushi, and since then I have noticed that Kunisan's style is different from other chefs. Now I know why. I thought it might be a good choice for a homesick student because it has a rather rustic down-home Japanese ambience, as opposed to some of the more glitzy places. But you are right, aside from the owners, the waitstaff seems to be American college students.

            2. Wherever you decide, make sure to call ahead to let them know your special request (Japanese speaking wait-staff). As a former Tokyo resident, I've been taken to plenty of Japanese restaurants in the US and found that the wait-staff is really Korean or some other non-Japanese Asian.

              That said, I think its a good point that you shouldn't jump to the conclusion that a Japanese foreign student wants to go to a Japanese place just to speak Japanese, especially if she's only in town for a weekend. At any rate, the Sushi will never compare to what she can get at home. She might really prefer an experience that she can't get at home. That's my general experience with foreign students both here and abroad.

              1. Thanks for all the ideas and comments. On the question of why take her out for a Japanese meal, it's because she said she'd like to do that. (Not a lot of Japanese food to be had in Richmond, Indiana.) And they have a long weekend here so there will be plenty of time for exploring other things and restaurants in the city.

                6 Replies
                1. re: TomW

                  I second the idea of an earlier post which suggested Ginza Fish, at 19 E. Ohio. Sit at the counter and chat with Yoko-san, the owner and sushi chef. The food there is very traditionally Japanese, even down to the makimono. Take her there for lunch and she can get things like kare raisu (curried rice), and other home-style items not on most Japanese restaurant menus here. All the waitstaff are Japanese, that I've seen.

                  Though the building it's in is seedy, the restaurant itself is very nice (clean if a bit worn-looking) and the fish is always pristinely fresh.

                  But if she'd like to experience the way in which Americans have taken the concept of sushi and ran with it, take her to Meiji, at 623 W. Randolph. This is the best of the more upscale Japanese restaurants in the city, with excellent and innovative makimono. If the "Crazy," "Dragon" and other non-traditional makimono are as unknown in Japan as the California roll once was, she might get a charge out of seeing the creative permutations they've taken in this country. Though the waitstaff is not Japanese, the hostess and the sushi chefs are.

                  1. re: Akatonbo

                    Thanks! I'm liking the Ginza Fish idea. I've been there a few times myself and enjoyed it a lot.

                    1. re: Akatonbo

                      I just had a thoroughly mediocre dinner at Meiji (the second time this has happened, and there won't be a third). The sashimi was watery and slimy. Not nearly worth the money. MUCH better fish can be had at Tsuki and Mirai for the same price.

                      1. re: jesteinf

                        Wow! That's bad news, since this is my favorite Japanese restaurant. But anyplace can go downhill - no place is immune. I wonder if they lost their chef. I haven't had dinner there since July (when we had an absolutley stellar meal (the chef's omakase), but I go regularly for lunch, at which times I order the cooked dishes or makimono. I haven't noticed any dip in quality in those items.

                        1. re: Akatonbo

                          I went to Meiji a few weeks ago, in fact on your recommendation, and had a great meal, although the service wasn't great. The waitress was pretty much disorganized and clueless about the food/wine. I'd think a place with their prices could find better. We had several maki, a salad, their version of Agedashi Tofu, dessert. I found it all very innovative and tasty. The fish was very fresh. My only other complaint was that the whole area by the Sushi bar was set up as production area for a large party they were having later in the night. Seems like something you would do behind the scenes. But the food was quite good. I'd put it up there with Mirai from a food standpoint. Different, but equally as good.

                          1. re: wak

                            I have to agree with you about the service, especially at lunch. I actually walked out of there last week, on a Friday, because I sat there for 10 minutes as both waiters milled around, completely ignoring me, even though I had my menu closed. But I love Meiji anyway, purely for the food, which, of all the places in Chicago, most reminds me of what I ate in Japan.

                            They seem to have a lot of turn-over in the waitstaff, which doesn't help. I've never had disorganized or uninformed service at dinner there (maybe just lucky).

                  2. How about the Sunshine Cafe in Edgewater (5500ish N Clark)? It's homestyle Japanese food that she might be craving. No sushi offerings tho.

                    1. Ginza is probably your best choice. However, if you want something uniquely different try Heat (www.heatsushi.com) Heat is dedicated to serving the freshest fish possible. To that end, they have installed three giant fish tanks, together capable of holding 400 pounds of fish, for fresh-kill sushi. "It doesn't get any fresher than that," says chef Kee Chan.

                      Seasonal offerings such as spiny lobster, fluke, shrimp, eel, flounder, grouper and more are plucked from the water and killed on the spot. Guests are invited to sample the chef's suggestions in a multi-course meal, which starts at $45 for seven courses and $60 for more premium cuts of sushi and nigiri.

                      1. Sunshine Cafe on Clark between Catalpa and Rascher definitely.

                        For one thing, it's owned by a Japanese family and everyone who works there is somehow related to one another as well as speaks fluent Japanese.

                        Best soba and una don in the city, hands down. The mackerel is also really amazing.

                        I've been to Ginza, but this place is much better.

                        1. FYI, I just read on another board that Sunshine Cafe will be closed for two weeks (vacation?) beginning 10/22.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: RMA

                            That 2 weeks vacation is a lie. It's been months. I think the family has moved back to Japan.