As Japan moved further towards modernization, for better or for worse, it became a country dominated by national and multinational franchises. Nowadays, one only needs to take a look at the country’s food scene to see this phenomenon. If you came to Japan for cheap street food or genuine mom and pop restaurants like all over the rest of Asia, then you came to the wrong country. Sure, there are plenty of decent independently owned and operated restaurants all around the country, but they are often greatly overshadowed by their much larger and much more popular corporate-run brothers.
No matter where I go in Japan – from Ibaraki to Mount Fuji to Osaka – the same restaurant franchises keep popping up again and again. The Japanese are big on trust, and the following franchises have apparently established good enough reputations to thrive in Japanese society. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, here are ten ubiquitous restaurant franchises that can be found all over Japan. See how many you recognize:
1. Saizeriya (サイゼリヤ)
Here’s the best way for me to describe Saizeriya: think of a much more budget-oriented version of Olive Garden, the American Italian restaurant franchise. It’s what the Japanese like to call a “famiresu,” meaning it’s a restaurant oriented towards families wanting to eat on a tight budget. Though I wouldn’t bat an eyelid at Saizeriya if it were in the United States, it’s actually one of my favorite franchises to dine at in Japan, mostly because they serve reasonably-priced Italian food, which seems rare in this country.
Saizeriya serves all kinds of Italian entrees – pizza, pasta, bread, salad, soup, tiramisu, and so on. They also serve several “fusion” dishes, i.e. ones that are neither fully Italian nor Japanese, but rather a combination of the two. Baked rice seems to be the most popular among that group. In typical Japanese famiresu fashion, every dish served at the franchise is quite small, so be prepared to order three or four dishes if you want to leave feeling full and satisfied.
Appetizers and salads go for about 150 to 500 yen, whereas entrees usually go for 4 to 800 yen. Desserts usually 300 yen or so. I tend to spend about 900 to 1,200 yen per person.
My favorite dish: the mushroom pizza.
2. Denny’s (デニーズ)
Yes, that Denny’s. How an American restaurant chain known largely for serving gigantic-sized, super American-style dishes became famous in Japan is beyond me. But let me make one thing clear, Denny’s in Japan is nothing like Denny’s in America, and I mean that in the worst way possible. Unfortunately, everything that made Denny’s great in America has been stripped away in Japan. If you were to walk into a Denny’s in Japan, and no one ever told you that you were inside a Denny’s, never would you imagine that’s indeed where you were.
Denny’s menu totally caters to Japanese tastes. Fish with miso soup, tempura with salad, and rice gratin with doria fish – does that sound like the American Denny’s you’re familiar with? I didn’t think so. Sure, there are a few “American” dishes on the menu, such as the clubhouse sandwich, but they resemble mutilated, malnourished versions of their American counterparts. The good news is Denny’s opens early and closes late, so they serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which is uncommon among most other restaurants. If you absolutely must go to Denny’s, then I suggest going for breakfast.
Entrees range from 600 yen all the way on up to 1,500 yen, with 800 or 900 being the average. Appetizers and salads go for 300 to 600. Desserts 300 and up. Though they’d be considered the size of a kid’s meal back in the States, breakfast combos are relatively cheap, averaging at about 600 yen.
My favorite dish: the scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and salad breakfast combo.
3. Café Restaurant Gusto (ガスト)
Gusto is quite similar to Japan’s Denny’s franchise. I’d almost go as far as to say that it’s a knock-off. It opens early and closes late, so just like Denny’s, it serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Toast, soup, eggs, sausages, salads, and coffee fill the breakfast menu while salads, steaks, burgers, pizza, desserts, and soft drinks dominate the lunch and dinner menus. I’ve had both breakfast and dinner at the restaurant. Breakfast was pretty decent and a nice value (certainly better than that of Denny’s), whereas dinner was plagued by child-size portions and low value. That said, I can only recommend it as an early morning eatery.
Most dishes at Gusto are served as part of a set, with prices as low as 300 yen, all the way up on past the 1,000 yen mark. I’d say 6 – 800 yen is enough for breakfast, and 1 – 1,500 yen is enough for lunch or dinner. Desserts generally go for a few hundred yen apiece, and Gusto also has a drink bar where you can drink as many soft drinks, tea, or coffee as you want for only a couple hundred yen. All in all, Gusto doesn’t stand out that much from the crowd, so don’t feel guilty if you pass it up. Decent for breakfast, but that’s about it I say. Still better than Denny’s!
My favorite dish: the sausage, egg, and toast breakfast set.
4. Big Boy (ビッグボーイ)
Believe it or not, Big Boy is actually an American franchise that seems to be far more successful in Japan than in its country of origin. I had never even heard of Big Boy upon my initial arrival in Japan, and it didn’t dawn on me that it’s actually American until an American colleague of mine filled me in. Anyways, Big Boy is mostly known for serving chunks of meat on cast-iron plates. Beef, chicken, and pork dominate the menu, though there are also a few things like pasta, curry, and baked rice dishes on the menu. But be warned, portions are pathetically small at Big Boy, so don’t go expecting an American-sized T-bone steak or anything. Rather most slabs of meat are smaller than a deck of playing cards. Luckily, Big Boy also has a decent salad bar with things like vegetables, potato salad, pasta salad, gelatin, soup, Japanese-style curry, and fruit. So if your entree doesn’t fill you up, then the salad bar likely will.
Prices at Big Boy range from moderately cheap to quite expensive, all depending upon what cut of meat you want, how big you want it, and whether or not you want the salad bar with it. You can actually order just the salad bar for about 700 yen if you so desire. Most of the meat dishes I go for are about 6 oz. and include the salad bar, usually coming to a total of about 1,000 to 1,300 yen. There are plenty of other entrees that well exceed the 1,500 yen mark, all the way up to about 3,000 yen. Most of the non-meat-heavy dishes are around 700 yen – or 1,000 yen with the salad bar. 1,500 yen should be more than enough for most people. All in all, if Big Boy in America is just like it is in Japan, I wouldn’t even bother going on my trips back. But because it’s one of the few places I can eat a slab of meat and get filled up (mostly from the salad bar), it’s actually one of my go to franchises in Japan.
My favorite dish: the chicken steak covered in melted cheese.
5. Yoshinoya (吉野家)
Quite possibly the longest running and most ubiquitous on this list, Yoshinoya is a staple of the Japanese restaurant market. It’s mostly known for serving “mixed rice” bowls topped with cuts of beef or pork, then mixed together with a raw egg and a variety of different toppings (very similar to bibimbap in South Korea). They also serve Japanese-style curry and a few meat dishes. Unlike many of the others on this list, lots of Yoshinoya restaurants have bar-style seating where patrons sit on high stools circling a central cooking area, which is a common theme in privately-run Japanese restaurants. That gives the restaurant a more authentic and local feel. Food is also generally served quickly, and portions are actually acceptable for a change.
Though I don’t go there that often out here in the sticks, Yoshinoya is my go-to franchise when I’m in big cities like Tokyo or Osaka. Prices are definitely cheap by Japan standards, and very rarely would I go over 1,000 yen for a meal at Yoshinoya, something that’s almost inevitable everywhere else I eat. Rice bowls come in varying sizes and flavors, with most only costing 600 yen or so all in. Many bowls also come in sets that include a small side of soup and/or pickled vegetables. And because 80% of the meal is simply steamed white rice, one bowl is generally enough to feel me up. None of this ordering two to four entrees to get filled up nonsense like at other franchises. If you’re in Japan, give Yoshinoya a shot, as it’s one of the best values to be had when dining out in Japan.
My favorite dish: the beef bowl with green onions and a raw egg (and a side of kimchi).
6. Kura Sushi (くら寿司)
Kura is one of Japan’s many many franchises of “conveyor belt” sushi restaurants, and it happens to be my favorite among them all. Generally, you choose to sit at a bar-like table with other strangers, or you sit at a private booth large enough for a small group. A very long conveyor belt loops all around the restaurant, with many different types of sushi passing each table and booth. The possibilities of flavors are endless – shrimp, shrimp and avocado, squid, salmon, salmon caviar, bacon, and so forth. You can either wait for your favorites to pass your table by on the conveyor belt, or you can special order them from the (Japanese only) touchscreen menu that sits above every table and booth. Special-ordered plates arrive to your table from a fast track that sits above the conveyor belt. Each plate generally comes with two medium-sized pieces of matching sushi. Kura also serves ramen, Japanese-style curry, desserts, beer, and specialized soft drinks.
Pricing is very simple at Kura. The majority of sushi plates are only 100 yen, whereas specialized, more expensive plates will be marked according. Prices are also clearly shown on the touchscreen menu, so you’ll know how much each item costs before you order it. A basic bowl of ramen is about 300 yen, with curry being about the same, if not a bit more. Desserts and drinks also hover around the few hundred yen range. I almost always grab ten plates of sushi when I go to Kura, which usually leaves me quite full and satisfied, all for only 1,000 yen plus tax. Very acceptable for Japan. Kura is definitely one of my favorites from this list, as the experience feels very Japanese, and portions are reasonable and affordable. If you like sushi, then definitely give Kura a shot.
My favorite sushi: the shrimp, avocado, onion, and mayonnaise sushi.
7. Mos Burger (モスバーガー)
Mos Burger is Japan’s answer to McDonald’s. Though unlike McDonald’s, which is well-known for serving artery-clogging greasy fast food, Mos Burger tries to take a much more “clean” approach in regards to their cooking methods. They serve mostly the same food as every other fast food burger joint, but each food item is served clean and presentably and is free of all the excess junk like cooking oil, sugar, and salt. The franchise serves a large variety of different hamburgers and hot dogs, with the lineup changing frequently to keep things interesting.
I quite like Mos Burger, far more so than McDonald’s, but the only thing that prevents me from eating there more often is its prices. It seems like you have to pay about 1.5 times what you’d pay at McDonald’s for 1.5 times less food. Burgers average around 4 to 500 yen, hot dogs perhaps a bit cheaper, and sides like French fries go for 300 or so. I usually have to buy three or four items to feel content with my meal, which means I usually wind up paying about 1,200 to 1,500 yen – a bit too much for a fast food meal if you ask me. Nevertheless, if you like burgers, hot dogs, and fries, Mos Burger is well worth a try. I wish more fast food joints took the same clean cooking approach.
My favorite food item: the spicy chili dog with jalapeños.
8. Marugame Seimen (丸亀製麺)
Udon noodles tend to take a hard backseat to ramen noodles at most noodle restaurant franchises in Japan. Not so at Marugame, where udon is their specialty. A welcome change I say, as I find Japan’s ramen very lackluster, especially when compared to that of mainland China. As soon as you walk into the door at Marugame, the restaurant’s kitchen is front and center for everyone to see (similar to Subway franchises in America). Lots of steam fills the air as more and more noodles are hand-prepared for each customer’s order.
First you select a broth for your udon, then you select your toppings, then you select what size you want. I hope you like deep-fried food, because most of the toppings are of the artery-clogging type. This ain’t Mos Burger! Think deep-fried fish, chicken, tofu, vegetables, and so forth. There are also a few spices, sauces, and garnishments you can add for free, such as chili powder, vinegar, soy sauce, minced ginger, and chopped green onions. You could have a simple bowl of udon for as low as 300 yen, or you could have a bowl with the works for as much as 1,000 yen. Regardless, 1,000 yen should be more than enough for most people, as I usually spend 800 yen or so and leave the restaurant very satisfied.
I give Marugame a solid six out of ten – the food is tasty and the portions are fair for what you pay, but I can’t eat a giant bowl of simple carbs and heart-clogging fats that often. Once every few months is more than enough for me. Nevertheless, if you’re tired of all the ramen restaurants like me, but you’re still craving some noodles, Marugame is good to change things up. It’s certainly worth at least one shot.
My favorite dish: udon with crispy chicken, onions, tartar sauce, and a lemon wedge.
9. Mister Donut (ミスタードーナツ)
Just like 7-Eleven, Mister Donut is an originally American franchise that is now headquartered in Japan. It’s now known as Dunkin’ Donuts in the US, but Mister Donut in Japan and the rest of Asia. As its name implies, Mister Donut is most known for its wide variety of donuts. They also serve pastries, coffee, tea, soft drinks, specialized dessert drinks, ice cream, and even noodle dishes as well. Because everything on the menu is basically pure junk food, I don’t find myself going to Mister Donut very often. But if you have an insatiable sweet tooth, this is your place. Also, if you like to just sit down and chill out like in a Starbucks, Mister Donut is good for that too.
Most donuts are around the same price – 130 – 150 yen seems to be about average. Other pastries are roughly the same price. All the classic donut flavors are here – chocolate, strawberry, powdered, cream-filled and so on. Regular-sized cups of coffee go for about 300 yen. Tea and soft drinks 200 yen. Dessert drinks 400 and up. Noodle bowls go for about 500 yen.
My favorite donut: the double chocolate.
10. Pizza-la (ピザーラ)
I have to confess that I’ve never eaten at Pizza-la, but for very good reason – it’s a total rip-off! But in all fairness, pizza is generally expensive everywhere in Japan. A “medium” pizza (equivalent to an American personal pan pizza) at Pizza-la starts at around 1,800 yen. Add a couple of toppings, and you’ll easy crack 2,500. Luckily, a plain cheese medium pizza is only 1,000 yen. Large pizzas (equivalent to an American medium) are jokingly expensive – plain cheese starts at 1,650, while most of the others hover around 3 to 4,000 yen. No, that’s not a typo! Pizza-la also serves fried chicken, French fries, salad, pasta, desserts, and soft drinks. Pasta dishes go for about 1,000, while all the rest generally range from 300 to 1,000 yen.
The pictures on the advertisements make Pizza-la’s pizza look very appetizing, but I just can’t stomach those prices. Unless there’s a special going on, I just can’t recommend Pizza-la. It seems like Domino’s, the American pizza chain, has had a continually running “buy one pizza, get one pizza free” promotion all throughout 2016 here in Japan. And as long as that’s the case, I’ll always recommend it over Pizza-la. Also bear in mind that Pizza-la has take-out and delivery only, so no dining in.
Like it or not, the big Japanese restaurant franchises are here to stay. Might as well try to find a few you like, or you will severely limit your options when dining out. Some are great, some are terrible, and even more are merely okay. But one thing’s for sure, they offer quite a bit of variety in Japan’s otherwise limited food scene. One can only eat so much ramen or grill-it-yourself barbecue before one gets extremely tired of the same ol’ same ol’. Japan’s famiresus help spice things up a bit.
If I had to pick a top three for newbies in Japan, I’d go with Kura Sushi, Yoshinoya, and Mos Burger. They serve the best tasting food and have the most flair to them. They also seem to be the healthiest choices, though I certainly wouldn’t refer to them as healthy. Nevertheless, don’t take my word for what’s good and what’s not. We all have different tastes in food after all. And there are so many different restaurant franchises in Japan that I could never name them all here. That said, look for a part two to this article sometime in the future.