The name "izakaya" is a compound word consisting of "i" (to stay) and "sakaya" (sake shop), indicating that izakaya originated from sake shops that allowed customers to sit on the premises to drink.
Depending on the izakaya, customers sit on tatami mats and dine from low tables in the traditional Japanese style, or sit on chairs and drink/dine from tables. Many izakaya offer a choice of both, as well as seating by the bar.
Usually, you will be given an oshibori (wet towel) to clean your hands with; next an otōshi or tsukidashi (a tiny snack/an appetizer) will be served. This is local custom and usually charged onto the bill in lieu of an entry fee. Japanese people in Kantō region call it otōshi and Kansai people call it tsukidashi.
The menu may be on the table, or displayed on walls. Picture menus are common in larger izakaya. Food and drink are ordered throughout the course of the session as desired. They are brought to the table, and the bill is added up at the end of the session. Unlike other Japanese styles of eating, food items are usually shared by everyone at the table as in Spanish tapas.
Common formats for izakaya dining in Japan are known as nomi-hōdai ("all you can drink") and tabe-hōdai ("all you can eat"). For a set price per person, customers can continue ordering as much food and/or drink as they wish, with a usual time limit of two or three hours.
Izakaya dining can be intimidating to non-Japanese with the wide variety of menu items and the slow pace of the meal. Food is normally ordered slowly over several courses rather than all at once. The kitchen will serve the food when it's ready rather than in formal courses like Western restaurants. Typically a beer is ordered when sitting down before perusing the menu. Delicately flavored dishes such as sushi or edamame are ordered first, followed with progressively more robust flavors such as yakitori or kara-age, finishing the meal with a rice or noodle dish to fill up.
There are a wide variety of izakaya offering all sorts of dishes, but items almost always available in any izakaya are as follows:
- Yakitori - grilled chicken skewers
- Kushiyaki - grilled meat or vegetable skewers
- Sashimi - slices of raw fish
- Karaage - bite-sized fried chicken
- Edamame - boiled and salted soybean pods
- Tsukemono - pickles
Rice dishes such as ochazuke and noodle dishes such as yakisoba are sometimes eaten at the end to round off a drinking session. (For the most part, the Japanese do not eat rice or noodles (shushoku - "staple food") at the same time as they drink alcohol, since sake, brewed from rice, traditionally takes the place of rice in a meal.)
Izakaya were traditionally down-to-earth places where men drank sake and beer after work; this trend is complemented by a growing population of independent women and students. Many izakaya today cater to a more diverse clientele by offering cocktails and wines as well as improving the interior.
- Chain izakaya are often large in size and offer an extensive selection of food and drink, allowing it to host large, sometimes rowdy, parties.
- Cosplay izakaya became popular in the 2000s. The female staff wears the costume and wait on customers. Sometime the cosplay izakaya runs the show.
- Yakitori-ya specialise in yakitori. The skewers are often grilled in front of customers.
- Robatayaki are where customers sit around an open hearth on which chefs grill seafood and vegetables. The fresh ingredients are displayed for customers to point at whenever they want to order.
- Establishments specialising in oden are called oden-ya. They usually take the form of street stalls with seating and are popular in winter.
- Izakayas are often called akachōchin ("red lantern") after the red paper lanterns that are traditionally displayed outside izakaya. Today the term usually refers to small, non-chain izakaya.