Dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant can be a bucket list item or a dream come true for foodies. But, many meals at these top restaurants will easily run $200 to $300 per person, if you can even get a reservation. Tokyo is home to the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world (over 300), and to the delight of frugal food lovers visiting the city, it also has one of the cheapest. Nakajima, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood, offers an incredible lunch menu. You can choose from a few prix fixe lunch options that each cost 800 or 900 yen (about $8-9 USD). Yes, you can enjoy lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant for under $10 USD in the heart of Tokyo.
Being both really into food and traveling on a budget, we’re torn between a really great (expensive) meal at a top restaurant and a cheap meal from a cafe. After reading the rave reviews for Nakajima, we had to see what it was all about! And at this unbelievable price, we couldn’t pass it up.
If you’re heading to Nakajima via one of Tokyo’s train lines, you’ll get off at Shinjuku Station. Take the South East exit, which will let you out by an escalator and stairs that will take you to street level. From there, Nakajima is just a couple blocks away. The restaurant is on a side street and next to some parking spaces and driveways. You’ll see Nakajima’s sign and maybe even a queue snaking out into the street. The restaurant is one floor below street level so people are often lined up on the stairs.
Nakajima is open for lunch every day from 11:30am to 2:00pm. People usually start to line up at 11:00 to 11:15am to get in as soon as it opens. If there is a line, you’ll place your order before you get seated so your food will come out quickly and people can cycle through. We lined up around 11:30 and were seated just after 12 noon.
Despite being in the heart of bustling Shinjuku, Nakajima has a calm, elegant ambiance with understated decor. There are stone and wood accents throughout. The restaurant is quiet, and the staff are efficient and to-the-point. Many employees speak English, and there is an English version of the menu. During lunchtime, diners are placed at either shared tables or the bar. If you’re lucky enough to get a seat at the bar, you’ll be able to watch the chefs hard at work.
I saw small groups of businesspeople, solo diners, and a few tourists, too. Many people were reading or talking in low voices to preserve the atmosphere in the restaurant. I didn’t see any groups larger than 3 people, probably because a larger group would need to wait for a long time to get seated together.
The Food at Nakajima
Tokyo is known for fish and seafood, and Nakajima specializes in a unique variety: sardines. Now, you’re probably picturing a tin of oily sardines, or maybe you’ve felt like a sardine in one of Tokyo’s train cars, but that’s not the type of sardine at Nakajima. I had never tried sardines like these. And even if you think you don’t like sardines, this place will change your mind.
For their lunch service, Nakajima offers a choice from five lunch sets, all centered around sardines. The difference lies in the preparation of the fish. Nakajima has an English lunch menu as well as pages that show photos of each dish so you can be confident in your menu choice.
All of the sets come with rice, miso soup, and a little bowl of pickles and seaweed. Since the meal is pretty light, you may want to order additional sardines. I tried the Nizakana (simmered sardines) set with a half order of fried sardine. I preferred the simmered one, but they were both really tasty. And Sven tried the sardine sashimi, which came cold and in small slices, rather than whole, like mine was.
Since we ordered before sitting down, our food came out just a few minutes after we were seated. The simmered sardines (there were two) were delicious – the sauce was a good balance between sweet and salty and the fish was tender. My sardines still had the bones inside, but since the fish are so small, you can eat them. The rice was nice and sticky, and one perk of the lunch menu is that you can get a second bowl of rice for free!
I was full after my lunch set plus the half order of fried sardines, but someone with a bigger appetite would probably want to order an additional whole menu item.
The lunch menu at Nakajima may be cheap, but it’s definitely Michelin-star quality and yummy. If you’re in Tokyo, love good food, and up for trying something new, add Nakajima to your Tokyo itinerary! This place is a gem for lunch in Shinjuku and an oasis of peace and quiet. Expect to wait for a seat, but the food is 100% worth the wait. And where else can you get a Michelin-starred meal for under $10?!
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