The two concepts that operate under the name Daikaya in Washington, DC, share a single address, ownership and big city Japanese vibe. But little else about them is the same. The ground floor houses a built-for-speed ramen shop whose menu adheres rigorously to the culinary traditions of the Japanese noodle masters. Upstairs, reached by a separate outside entrance, is a reservations-only izakaya that offers an eclectic small plates menu, a lengthy alcoholic beverage list and a seductive, laid-back design.
Sounds confusing on paper, but customers figured out Daikaya in a hurry when it opened earlier this year. No sooner had owners Yama Jewayni, Katsuya Fukushima and Daisuke Utagawa opened the doors to their 40-seat ramen shop late last winter than they were serving 400 customers a day. Ramen-mania is going full blast in several big cities around the country, but it’s a wonder more operators haven’t jumped on this style of food so far.
Why? Add it up: 40 seats, 10 turns a day, all for a dish that sells for around $12 and consists in large part of flavored broth and noodles. As unit economics go, it’s hard to beat this model.
But Daikaya’s 90-seat izakaya upstairs might give it a shot. The gastropub-style operation delivers a big-time experience that belies its modest price points.
“An izakaya is a type of restaurant that caters to all occasions in Japan,” says partner Daisuke Utagawa. “It ranges from a full dinner experience to happy hour otsumami and drinks, plus late night bites, and an izakaya is also nonexclusive and a bit freestyle by nature.”
There’s not much freestyling downstairs at the ramen shop. It has a stripped-down menu that matches its operating model. The Sapporo-style offerings—all noodles are imported from there—are as authentic as they can be. You won’t find any ramen burgers, either. Instead, there are just five ramen dishes on the menu, four of them based on a Chintan stock made with pork, chicken and beef. These options (Shio ramen $11.75; Shoyu ramen, $12; Mugi-miso ramen, $13; Spicy miso ramen, $13.25) are all topped with roast pork: chasu, bean sprouts, onions, ground pork, nori and scallions.
Guests can add toppings that range from extra noodles for $2.50 to two pieces of Nori (dried seaweed) for just $.50. Non-meat eaters opt for the all-vegetable ramen ($13.25). The only other food items on the menu: Gyoza (pan-fried dumplings with pork and cabbage filling, five pieces for $5.75) and Gohan (a bowl of steamed white rice that costs $2).
Drink choices are limited. There are a couple of beers (Sapporo draft, $4.75); cold sake ($6.75), and five nonalcoholic options (green tea, $3).
It’s table service, not fast casual, but fast casual operators could learn a lot by looking at how this place is set up. The ramen shop’s success is more impressive when you note that customers packed the place all through Washington’s steamy summer, even though soup-like ramen seems like more of a cold weather dish.
Drinks key to izakaya experience
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Daikaya’s izakaya pairs a lengthy menu with an equally lengthy list of beverages.
2003 Restaurant Hospitality Rising Star Fuku-shima’s menu is an eclectic take on Japanese bar food done up small-plate style, with pricing to match. The 34-item list has six primary categories.
Otsumami/Fun bites range from a high of $7.75 (Chawanmushi, steamed egg and dashi custard with braised shiitake, parmesan and enoki mushrooms) to a trio of fermented Japanese vegetables that go for $2 apiece (housemade sake lee daikon, Napa cabbage, Takuan). The Wasabi Tako (raw marinated octopus with Granny Smith apple, celery, California arbequina olive oil and wasabi sprouts, $6) seems very Japanese, a baked Rappahannock oyster (with teriyaki sauce, butter and parmesan cheese, $3) much less so.
Aomono/Green Things offers a Grilled Avocado (housemade ponzu, fresh wasabi and nori salt, $6.50) and a Burrata Salad ( with arugula, cherry tomatoes, dashi gelee and ponzu vinaigrette) that, at $12, ties for priciest item on this menu. The Sakana/Fish Things section includes a $10 Tuna Poke and a Miso Braised Sabe for $7.75 whose menu description invites guests to “Please enjoy the soft bones!”
Kushi/Skewers mostly provides straightforward animal proteins (chicken thigh, $3; beef tenderloin, $5). There’s a $2 veggie option (zucchini with lemon and thyme) and a pork and brussels sprout offering prepared with Kewpie mayo, okonomiyaki sauce, bonito flakes and aonori that costs $6.
Less-adventurous patrons may find comfort in the Oniku/Meat Things list, where a Japanese–style hamburger steak with red wine-Worcestershire sauce goes for $10 and the $5.75 turkey wing is seasoned with a “pesto” made from ginger, garlic and scallion. Cod roe spaghetti, served with nori, chervil and cream sauce for $9.25, rounds out the Gohan To Men Rhui/Rice and Noodles section that closes out the menu.
Drinks are a pivotal part of the izakaya experience at Daikaya. Two-ounce pours of a quintet of Japanese whiskeys go from $16 to $30. There are 28 varieties of sake available for as little as $9 for an eight-ounce carafe of house sake and ranging into the triple digits for bottles of high-end labels. Adventurous drinkers can choose from 11 different kinds of shochu or try one of three plum wines. There’s plenty of beer, too: eight varieties on draft, 30 more available by the can or bottle. Thirteen wines by the glass ($9 to $15) and 21 by the bottle provide customers with more beverage options.
Fukushima’s molecular gastronomy skills don’t come into play much on Daikaya’s food offerings, but he came up with a killer signature item for the cocktail list. It’s the Dai-drops Sakeboom, a spherified shot of sake that’s dropped into a glass of Sapporo beer. Customers then burst it at will.
Daikaya’s owners somehow knew that DC diners were ready for a restaurant that embraced two takes on Japanese cuisine, even though neither concept involved sushi. They figured out a way to bring authentic ramen into the mainstream; look for other operators to follow their lead.