7 Izakayas to Satisfy Your Yakitori Cravings in Shanghai

By Sophie Steiner, March 26, 2021

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The food scene goes through fads, trendy concepts that seem to be the hottest new thing... until they're not. Restaurateurs jump on the bandwagon quickly, and we find ourselves with 15 new French wine bars or 27 gelato shops, all opening in the same year. Ok, not quite that many, but you get the picture. 

Well, Shanghai's wanghong favorites lately seem to be Japanese izakayas. Maybe it's the curling tendrils of smoke, sensually rising from a binchotan grill, the smell of charred meat with a hint of miso that fills the air, or the sizzle of juicy fat dripping off of layers of crisp skin. Whatever it is, we aren't alone in saying we can't get enough. 

In the last few months, we've crushed our fair share of yakitori and Japanese small plates, some from newly opened hotspots, others from Shanghai institutions that have been around longer than we have. While this roundup just grazes the tip of the izakaya iceberg, here are a few venues worth noting, for better or for worse. 

Hundo

Climb the stairs of the 20 Donghu Lu villa, and enter the dimly lit Hundo – where you’re instantly transported out of Shanghai and into a bustling yakitori joint in the heart of Tokyo.

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Your field of vision takes in a dark wooden bar lined with chefs scoring sashimi, slicing steaks and serving sake and shochu, all while the aroma of roasting snapper, charred chicken skin and a hint of yuzu fill your nostrils – the authenticity makes you feel like you should be paying in Japanese yen.

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The menu spans sashimi, cold and hot bites, charcoal grilled dishes, yakitori, kushiage (deep-fried skewers), tempura, yakiniku (grilled meat) and rice. It sounds like a lot, but as most are small dishes or skewers, you can do some serious damage with just two people. 

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From Beef Tartar (RMB118) that sees mayo swapped out for velvety sea urchin, and added brightness from the bursting salmon roe spheres, to Grilled 5 Days Dry Aged Chicken Thigh (RMB68) with taught skin that puckers and crisps, charring to a rich, dark brown to reveal the most succulent of meat underneath, the small plates can easily lead you astray from the grilled meat. Fight the urge and save room for what's to come. 

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The most succulent yakitori we found in all of Shanghai comes from Hundo. There, we said it. Compared to the others on the list, it's a hands down winner on meat quality and cooking techniques. Juicy Oyster Blade (RMB15) is grilled lightly so it firms up without scorching, resulting in a welcoming dribble of chicken juice down your chin if not eaten in one bite, while the Thigh & Leek (RMB20) is crispy yet tender in all the right ways, roasted fat leeks interlaced between nuggets of chicken perfection.

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With minimalist cooking like yakitori, the narrow spectrum between bland and delicious can be measured in flecks of salt, and Hundo has that measurement down to a science. 

Read a full review here. See a listing for Hundo. 

Akatsuki (aka Xiao's Izakaya)

Gubei is a trek, but Akatsuki makes it worth it. A favorite amongst Japanese businessmen, hip locals and in-the-know expats, this seafood-focused izakaya is always the best meal of your week. Instead of the customary grilled meats and chicken parts, Akatsuki focuses on sushi, sashimi and other Japanese dishes beginning with 's' – like sukiyaki. 

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The fish quality is par none, with buttery tuna belly, delicate mackerel and succulent prawns. Ask nicely, and the staff will even cook your leftover shrimp heads into a rich miso broth with juicy clams for an extra RMB28. 

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Ultra-fatty Tuna Belly Ngiri (RMB58/piece), brushed lightly with soy sauce and wasabi are adorned with crowns of sea urchin, creamy and delicate for the most sultry of bites that helped this restaurant garner its loyal following.

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Aside from seafood, the crispy Potstickers (RMB38), the hockey puck-sized Chicken Meatballs (RMB19/piece) served in a drinkable ponzu and egg yolk sauce, and the shredded rather than cubed Beef Tartar (RMB78) are all big wins. 

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Go in a group of more than two people and it's a shame to skip the Sukiyaki (RMB128/person). Bubbling sweet broth chock-full of cabbage, onions, tofu and greens is covered in paper thin layers of marbled beef. Slurp down that extra bit of broth with a Grilled Rice (RMB20).

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The vibe is always bumping, the owner is welcoming and the highballs flow more than freely in extra large, frothy mugs the size of your face. For Akatsuki, we will now be heading to Gubei on the reg.

See a listing for Akatsuki.

Toriyasu

A longstanding favorite amongst foreigners and Chinese alike, Toriyasu is a must visit for the vibe alone... one that feels uncannily similar to Shinjuku's Piss Alley. A scratched wooden bar dominates the space, with menu items scrawled vertically in Japanese hiranga down individual dangling brown papers hanging from the bar's top venting. Sitting grillside – smack-dab in the middle of the action – is a must, as watching the yakitori master at work is half the fun. 

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The skewers here are comparatively cheaper, and that's partly because the meat quality doesn't compare to others on this list, but what is lost in the latitude between 'solid' and 'the best grilled meats' is made up for in the fun-loving atmosphere. 

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All of the regulars make a showing – Chicken Thigh (RMB12), Chicken Gizzards (RMB10), Chicken Breast (RMB10) and Chicken Meatballs (RMB10) that are noticeably smaller than the oblong-shaped one-hitters we find at most other venues on this list, instead similar in size to a large grape. 

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Enoki Mushrooms Wrapped in Bacon (RMB15) are less crispy than we hoped, but the flaky, expertly salted Mackerel (RMB35) overshadows it. Surprisingly, our two most random orders, the Potato Salad (RMB22) and the Teriyaki Chicken (RMB38) stood out above the rest.

Creamy mashed potatoes laden with dollops of Kewpie mayo form a necessary stomach base for slinging back Highballs (RMB35) and Shochu (RMB25), while the sticky, sweet teriyaki sauce had us dipping everything short of our fingers directly into it. Ok, you caught us – we did dip our fingers in it. 

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Toriyasu is just one of many Japanese spots in this area. It sits along a strip of other yakitori joints, some specializing in sushi and seafood, others in hotpot, Japanese BBQ, okinomiyaki, eel rice or cold soba noodles.

See a listing for Toriyasu.

Overdose

Go out to Gubei, and yes, you will most definitely find more authentic Japanese yakitori than Overdose – a hip, semi-unknown izakaya on Huashan Lu – but sometimes our love for a restaurant isn’t solely focused on the food; it’s an amalgamation of what we eat, how we eat it, the music, the service and the atmosphere that culminate into a memorable experience. Food is what’s on the plate, but dining extends beyond that. People forget how powerful the culture of a restaurant can be.  

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Overdose is miniscule, yet every time we’ve been we end up staying for hours. Why? Because when the perfect whirlwind of steaming grilled meat skewers, free-flowing highballs and self-regulated karaoke that brings together both friends and strangers, it’s hard to justify moving elsewhere. 

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The food is designed to be ordered again and again – as the price on the menu is per skewer – and we do just that, along with countless cheap Highballs (RMB38)Sours (RMB32) and Asahis (RMB20), just like the izakaya gods intended. Nothing on the menu costs more than RMB50, with most skewers falling in the RMB10-20 range. 

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Usual suspects, like sauced or salted Chicken Skewers (RMB10) and charred Chicken and Green Onion (RMB12) form a base, while crispy Chicken Wings (RMB18) and pleasantly chewy Beef Tongue (RMB20) get into the good stuff. 

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Do not skip the Chicken Meatballs (RMB16). We repeat – do not even think about skipping them. Three golf ball-sized spheres adorn a skewer, each coated in a slightly sticky paste made of soy sauce, mirin, sugar and rice vinegar. The crispy exterior gives way to the juicy meat inside, exactly how any meatball – regardless of cuisine – should.

Reservations are usually taken only a day or two in advance, unless you’re a sizeable group (6+ people). We are strong believers that yakitori tastes better when served with a side of hip hop. Roll up with a larger group, and you become DJ for the night of your own private meat-skewer filled club, and this is Overdose's defining characteristic that makes it standout from the rest.

Read a full review here. See a listing for Overdose. 

Atelier Izakaya

At Daniel An’s (Taste BudsAtelier by Taste BudsCocktail Palace by Taste Buds, etc.) Atelier Izakaya, industrial warehouse decor, exposed painted brick, rustic sliding barnyard doors and metallic aluminum chairs have replaced the now deceased Arch. Although we still lament the loss of those pillowy blue cheese stuffed gnocchi paired with mad scientist-level rotovap creation libations from the location’s previous incarnation, the Shanghai trend gods have spoken, and the name of the game is izakaya. 

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While other izakayas (*cough* Hundo *cough*) may take themselves a bit too seriously as an authentic Japanese izakaya, Atelier Izakaya is more hip and young, embracing its Japanese roots but still assuming a Chinese twist.

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The Wagyu Uni Rice (RMB68) is a bowl of sex. Raw A5 Wagyu beef cubes and luscious slabs of sea urchin perch atop sushi rice like melting butter. Drag a chopstick across the onsen egg’s thin outer coating and watch the climactic explosion of warm, velvety yolk dribble down the side of the bowl. Briny pearls of bright orange salmon roe burst with each bite, cutting through the fatty richness, begging you to go in for another scoop… or shovelful. Do you need a cigarette yet?

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Other can't miss small plates include the Kanpachi Tartare (RMB48), symmetrical cubes of buttery fish glistening with ponzu sauce and a sprinkle of aromatic Thai basil, and Grilled Eel Over Rice (RMB38). The Red Fruit Dessert (RMB48) is a dessert worth derailing any diet for. 

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The yakitori meats are well prepared, albeit a bit tranquil (there is nothing wrong with that; give the people what they want... and expect!) Grilled on bamboo skewers and served with fresh calamansi, any of the regular hitters will do – succulent Chicken Tenderloin (RMB12), fat-capped Chicken Oyster [Blade] (RMB18), meaty Chicken Breast (RMB18) or fragrant Plum Shiso Chicken Thigh (RMB18) – if you want to see a familiar landmark at the table. The meat is tender, the sauces are flavorful and the portion sizes match the price. 

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Despite the open layout and size, Atelier Izakaya has a bar vibe that makes you crave another round of sake. Whether it’s the groovy 70s jams pumping out beats that are hard not to bump and grind to or the black paint coating most surfaces that make you feel like a heathen of the night, something about the space urges us to drink…heavily. Yet somehow food is still the focus.

Read a full review here. See a listing for Atelier Izakaya. 

Torishou

The warming atmosphere at Torishou is emphasized by the overly friendly staff and organized chaos within the open kitchen. Here you can see dozens of skewers – holding every part of a chicken you could possibly think of (and even some you can’t) – roasting on an open flame.  

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Owner William Zhang is a restaurant entrepreneur with an affinity for Japanese food done right. He owns four Japanese restaurants around Shanghai (and a number of other establishments), including Sushi Takumi, Shi Jian, Man Long and Torishou, each focusing on a distinct ingredient or style of Japanese cuisine. To put it lightly, he knows his stuff when it comes to Japanese food. “Maybe in my last life I was Japanese” says Zhang, smiling coyly while popping a peppered chicken gizzard in his mouth. 

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With a focus on using every part of the chicken, the menu includes around 30 different cuts to choose from (including raw chicken sashimi, if you dare). On any given day, the restaurant also boasts an exclusive “secret menu” with varying items available depending on the market. From chicken throat to chicken knees to chicken comb (that wobbly red part on top of a chicken’s head), Torishou has it all. 

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For the adventurous eater, the Undeveloped Eggs (RMB20) steal the show. Each skewer comes with 4-5 pendulous eggs, about the size of a hard-boiled quail egg, still attached to the ovaries that are grilled and glazed. Pop the outer layer of skin and relish in the oozing yolk, reminiscent of that first bite of any Eggs Benedict. 

If eggs still attached to organs are too much to handle mentally, the more common Eggs (RMB17) still have that same creamy, erupting yolk and sweet, savory glaze, but they are served with no other chicken parts attached, making it a bit easier to stomach. 

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Side dishes range from Cheese Tofu (RMB12) to Fried Shrimp (RMB48) to Grilled Rice Cakes (RMB15). From mastering the basics to rewarding the adventurous, Torishou is your dream destination for a Tokyo getaway that costs far less than a plane ticket.

Read a full review here. See a listing for Torishou. 

404

At 404, the emerald green tufted sofas and lounge chairs fit the jazz music emanating from the speakers, creating a whiskey and cigar bar vibe that seems like a curious choice for a Japanese yakitori spot – a place that usually involves a bustling shotgun bar with smoke-laden layers of controlled chaos composed of speedy skewers and flowing highballs. 

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And this is where the confusion set in, and continued to pervade throughout the entire meal – an almost never-ending dinner of slow service, too-small-to-share bites and over-charred meats. The menu is divided into yakitori, mains and snacks with an extensive cocktail list. Since 404 is known for being an izakaya, we went hard on the yakitori order, a decision that ultimately led to buyer’s remorse.

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From flabby Chicken Skin (RMB8) to scorched Chicken Thigh (RMB15) to relatively tasteless Chicken Breast (RMB15), our favorite skewer ended up being just a vegetable – the Wild Mushroom (RMB12). The small plates, like Yellowfin Tuna Tartar (RMB58) and Silken Tofu (RMB38) weren't bad, but rather unmemorable.

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Feeling optimistic after the more promising snacks, the mains ultimately took a turn… for the worse. The bland Chicken and Pork Meatball Udon (RMB68) came with soggy, unseasoned tempura-fried eggplant, dry meatballs and an excessive amount of bonito flakes in a thin, depthless curry sauce. Think fishy chicken noodle soup sans the soup, but with mushy udon noodles. At this point, we decided to pass on dessert. 

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404 wants to be a more refined izakaya, but doesn’t seem to take any steps in that direction when it comes to the food. We understand the demand for a place to enjoy souped-up versions of Japanese ‘street food’ per se – balanced with an upscale vibe. 

However, in this case, the venue setting and the food execution do not match – the value just isn’t there. While someday we may find ourselves venturing in again, especially after hearing from others of their more positive experience, we probably won't be rushing in anytime soon. 

Read a full review here. See a listing for 404.

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The Night I Overdosed at Overdose

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A Day Trip to Tokyo at Yakitori and Yakiniku Joint Hundo

The authenticity at Hundo makes you feel like you should be paying in Japanese yen.

404 Izakaya – Controlled Chaos or Just Plain Confused?

A jazz bar vibe mixed with bland izakya food results in a never-ending dinner of slow service, too-small-to-share bites and over-charred meats.

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