Izakaya by Yanaga Is the Rare New Restaurant That Feels Like an Old Favorite
The relaxed Fishtown Japanese spot is exactly what you need, right when you need it.
Is it strange to say that the most notable thought I had when walking away from dinner at Kevin Yanaga’s brand-new Izakaya in Fishtown was that it felt like it had been there for years?
Some new restaurants exude an energy that’s palpable — an electric nervousness that infuses everything and can feel like buzz when it’s really only terror. Some are so adorable in their yellow-duckling newness that it’s tempting to forgive them almost anything. Others are exciting the way watching someone build a house of cards is — breathe wrong, and the whole thing might collapse.
Izakaya by Yanaga, though, feels like none of those things. To see it early on a weeknight is to see it busy with neighbors, friends, couples with kids. It’s populated but not crowded, busy but not packed. No one is snapping pictures or cooing over architectural plates. They’re just eating — plates of robata, spicy tuna maki, mitten-soft bao folded over curried short rib with pickled carrots — or sucking down bowls of Kawasaki-style chicken ramen and soupless tantan mazemen.
The space (once home to Aether) is spare, comfortable, lovely with its clean lines, hardwood, dim lights and long bar. Cool and easy early on a Thursday evening, buoyant when the weekend crowds start rolling in.
And sitting there with a Tea Time cocktail of Hōjicha tea-infused gin, ginger and honey, eating oishi shrimp tacos in shatteringly crisp fried shells and kimchi pork gyoza with red pepper mustard. I’m comfortable. Happy. Kevin Yanaga has cooked everywhere — Morimoto, Zama, Double Knot, more. He knows this game, this food, this space (in the intellectual sense) that he’s inhabiting.
An izakaya is, in its purest form, a neighborhood bar and grill. A public space meant for the feeding and watering of the weary masses looking to unwind with a tall beer and some meat on sticks. And while so often, new chefs feel like they have to light their hair on fire just to get a little attention, Yanaga and his team aren’t doing that here. They don’t need to.
With smart cocktails, a chill floor staff, tuna chirashi and karaage fried chicken dripping with sriracha Buffalo wing sauce, Yanaga is projecting calm and competence, which, in a weird way, feels almost refreshing right now. Izakaya by Yanaga (which, it should be noted, is only in the first phase of a two-stage opening that will be drawn out over weeks, maybe months) is, more than anything, a throwback of a restaurant — a pre-pandemic remnant that exists just to serve dinner and drinks, absent scars, absent history, absent drama. It’s a neighborhood bar for an imaginary Fishtown where the biggest concern is who’s got the next round.
And sometimes, that’s exactly what we need.
3 Stars — Come from anywhere in the region
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in the region
★★★★: come from anywhere in the country
Published as “Take Five” in the December 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.