20 Daitokujimae, Murasakino
Tel: 81 75 493 0019
You're no monk, so why should you put up with shojin ryori? The Zen Buddhist cuisine contains no meat, no fish, no eggs, no dairy, and no assertive spices or herbs such as garlic. For the persuasive answer, park yourself on a zabuton cushion in one of the garden-view tatami rooms at Ikkyu, a restaurant just outside the southeast gate of the sprawling Daitokuji Zen temple complex. For more than 500 years, Ikkyu Tsuda's family has been feeding Daitokuji's priests and monks, and it's nothing short of a miracle what they can do with tofu, root vegetables, and rice. The lovely setting doesn't hurt a bit, and neither does the service, which includes a head-buzzing jolt of powdered green tea, whisked, brewed, and presented in a beautiful bowl—a miniature tea ceremony that's all part of the price. Reservations necessary.
Open daily noon to 6 pm.
Minamiza-higashi 4-ken-me, Shijo-dori
Tel: 81 75 561 2786
A family-run restaurant near the Minamiza Kabuki Theatre, Matsuno raises eel cuisine to high art. Though the menu includes a smattering of other offerings, ignore them and order one of the set meals that includes charcoal-grilled eel served over rice, and a bowl of a delicate clear broth that contains the mildly flavored liver (you can slurp the broth and skip the liver if you're squeamish). Mrs. Matsuno, if she's on the premises, is a gracious hostess who speaks English and will teach you the finer points of eel cuisine. Already an aficionado? She may suggest two unusual house specialties: shirayaki, eel cooked and served with a lighter sauce and wasabi; and hiremaki, skewered, broiled eel fins wrapped around gobo (burdock root).
Open Mondays through Wednesdays and Fridays through Sundays noon to 9 pm.
Tel: 81 75 231 1095
When you tire of ritualized kaiseki dinners, and of watching your mouth and manners in perplexing Japanese restaurants, this is the place to kick back and down a few beers or sakes. Menami's "home-style" obanzai cooking is rooted firmly in Japan, but the ever-morphing menu comfortably country-hops (try the Vietnamese-style spring rolls stuffed with pork, bamboo shoots and onions, or sansho-spiced lamb chops that would be at home in Greece). Many of the offerings are displayed on the countertop, which makes ordering easy. Make a reservation, for Menami has only a tiny counter, a few tables on a raised tatami platform, and a cozy booth near the door. If you like the ceramics on which meals are served, ask about Menami's sister pottery shop.
Open Mondays through Saturdays for dinner only.
Tel: 81 75 221 2525
In the West, we may consider soba noodles a humble meal, but the Japanese take them very, very seriously, and they come from all over the country to Kawamichiya, where the latest generation of the Ueda family watches over steaming cauldrons of handmade buckwheat noodles and broth. The specialty of this bare-bones, 300-year-old restaurant is hokoro, a filling meal-in-a-pot chock-full of noodles, chicken, tofu, and vegetables. Just around the corner, in an equally old and "oh-so-Kyoto" wooden shop, Kawamichiya sells its famous soba-flour cookies.
Open Mondays through Wednesdays and Fridays through Sundays.
This narrow, mostly covered pedestrian shopping street is parallel to and one block north of Shijo-dori, the main street in the center of town, and runs for blocks and blocks. Open from early morning until late afternoon, it's a great place to browse and graze among the fishmongers, fruit and vegetable grocers, pickle purveyors, and endless stalls of prepared food, from grilled eel to pounded-rice cakes. Eat on the run or take it back to your hotel with youor just fill up on the free samples.
86-30 Fukuchi-cho, Nanzen-ji
Tel: 81 75 771 8709
If the essence of Zen Buddhist Kyoto could be distilled into a pot, it would be a pot of simmering yudofu at this centuries-old tofu restaurant just across from the towering gate to Nanzen-ji Temple. Even if you find tofu bland and uninspiring, give this a chance: You'll likely be won over by Okutan's skewers of grilled tofu dengaku, served with a finger-licking sweet miso sauce.
Open Mondays through Wednesdays and Fridays through Sundays 10:30 am to 5 pm.
1-237 Miyagawasuji, Kawabata-dori
Tel: 81 75 525 0170
Some might call it a scam: taking oden—the hodgepodge stew that's served at ramshackle street stalls and slurped up by drunken students and salarymen on cold winter nights—moving it indoors, and charging an arm and a leg. But Takocho's spin on this seaweed-based broth—filled with octopus tentacles, hard-boiled eggs, fried tofu, fish cakes, and other goodies and served with a generous dollop of fiery mustard and a fistful of chopped scallions—is worth the up-charge: The broth is heavenly, and the ingredients high-quality and varied. Get there early: The counter-only restaurant fills up quickly, the choicest ingredients disappear fast, and the competition among regulars can be brutal.
Open Tuesdays through Sundays.