Getting Into Tokyo’s Top Restaurants Is Harder Than Ever

Strict members-only policies, limited seating, and favoritism for regular customers can make it near-impossible to get a table

For Yosuke Suga, chef at French-inspired fine-dining restaurant Sugalabo, communication with guests is key for maintaining a high level of personalized service, including an updated list of diners’ food restrictions and preferences. This is why he prefers to serve regulars at the restaurant in Tokyo’s Minato District and requires that first-time guests be accompanied by someone who has already dined in the 20-seat room. “We can’t answer all phone calls, and I don’t want to hire one more employee just as a telephone operator,” he says. “It is, of course, a way to keep our loyal guests and keep exclusivity, but also to make it easier to control the reservation system.”

Regulars-only or members-only policies are common among Tokyo’s new generation of chefs, especially those serving more traditional fare like sushi, yakitori, or yakiniku (“grilled meat”). “Generally, Japanese chefs are much more interested in accommodating their local customers who come over and over again to their restaurants. The relationship is important and builds over time,” says Andrea Fazzari, author of Tokyo New Wave: 31 Chefs Defining Japan’s Next Generation.

The more often a customer returns, the easier it is to get into a restaurant and the more intimate the experience. “Chefs can also rely on their regulars to behave in a certain way according to the norms of Japanese society (being punctual, always showing up when a reservation is made, being well mannered during service),” Fazzari explains. “Tourists are more unpredictable, and this makes some Japanese chefs uncomfortable.”