I was perplexed.
I’d ordered yakitori.
But what followed was a salad, vegetarian hotpot, and mixed rice with vegetables – and this was a famous yakitori restaurant.
Embarrassed, I ate what I could while wondering where I had gone wrong.
When I told my friend how I had ordered, she said it sounded a bit like I wasn’t happy with the menu.
So the restaurant staff thought I was a foreigner who didn’t like meat.
They’d taken pity on me and gave me a special vegetarian course.
I learned a big lesson – be careful what you ask for!
Overcoming Fears of Ordering Food in Japanese
Although a beginner could order in Japanese at a restaurant, it’s quite intimidating to know that the server could ask you something you don’t understand. Or in my case, that you might say something misleading.
It’s an understandable fear; you could easily agree to something by mistake, or say something that sounds foolish.
But with just a few tips you can easily become a master of speaking Japanese in a restaurant, thanks to the fact that all restaurants follow the same format!
You enter, you order, you eat and then you ask for the bill. A waitress or waiter isn’t likely to ask about your traveling arrangements, your job, nor which classic Japanese film you like the best. They just want you to sit down and order.
So there’s no need to fear, you’ll be eating delicious Japanese food that you proudly ordered in no time, thanks to this handy ordering guide.
Entering the Restaurant
Japan can be a bit overwhelming with its selection of restaurants, which are normally bunched together quite closely, but generally they will all have their menus up front – even if you can’t see inside. For non-Japanese people it’s usually okay to look at the menu and peer into the restaurant to see what’s going on.
When you enter the restaurant you will always be greeted with “いらっしゃいませ” (irasshai mase). This is a typical greeting that can also be heard in stores, coffee shops, etc.
The first question they will ask is “何名様ですか?” (nan mei sama desu ka? – How many people?). To reply, simply say “三人です” (san nin desu) for three people, etc., or with a sheepish smile you can say “一人です” (hitori desu), which means just one person.
Next you will be led to a table, and then with a hand gesture and a polite “こちらへどうぞ” (kochira e douzo– Please sit here), the waiter or waitress will show you your table. After you sit down you will be given a menu, sometimes accompanied by the spoken words “メニューになります” (menyuu ni narimasu – Here is the menu).
If you aren’t comfortable reading a Japanese menu, you can ask for an English menu with the question “英語のメニューがありますか?” (eigo no menyuu ga arimasu ka? – Do you have an English menu?). Restaurants often have an English version.
Up to this point in your dining experience it’s only been necessary to use simple words or phrases like “はい” (hai – Yes) or “ありがとうございます” (arigatou gozaimasu – Thank you), but now get ready to use real Japanese!
Ordering in Japanese
Once you are at your table with a menu, the waiter or waitress might ask “お飲み物は?” (onomi mono wa? – Would you like a drink?) or alternatively, “お飲み物はいかが致しますか?” (onomi mono wa ika ga itashimasu ka? – What would you like to drink?).
Ordering a drink (or anything for that matter) is relatively simple. You just need to state the name of the item plus “お願いします” (onegai shimasu – Please). Many drink names are similar to English names, so if you say something like beer (ビール- biiru) or Coca Cola (コカ・コーラ- koka koora), then you will probably be understood.
For other drink items, it’s a good idea to find the Japanese name first, but most drink names are easy to remember. Green tea is called お茶 (ocha), and after you say it a few times you will quickly be able to recall it.
Getting your server’s attention
If you ever need your server’s attention, you can always just raise your hand and say “すみません” (sumimasen – Excuse me). Many Japanese restaurants also have call buttons for each table, so you can simply press the button and a server will be there shortly.
Ordering your meal
After serving your drinks, or after giving you some time, they will ask you “ご注文はお決まりですか?” (gochuumon wa okimari desu ka? – Have you decided what you want to order?).
If you aren’t ready yet, then you can ask for more time by saying “もう少し時間を頂けますか?” (mou sukoshi jikan wo itadakemasu ka? – Can I have a little more time?). If you do know what you want, then you can order!
Since many Japanese dishes are small, you normally will state both what you want and how many plates of each. If you are ordering for several people, be extra sure to state how many of each item you want.
This is a simple three-part sentence structure for ordering: food item, number and please. For example, “… を一つお願いします” (… wo hitotsu onegai shimasu – Can I have one of … please?). If you were to ask for two plates of curry, you would say “カレーを二つお願いします” (karee wo futatsu onegai shimasu – Two plates of curry, please).
Once you order, your server will say “はい、少々お待ち下さい” (hai, shoushou omachi kudasai – Okay, please wait). Congratulations! You have successfully ordered your food!
Making Special Requests
If you are feeling more adventurous with your Japanese, or don’t know what to choose, then you can ask for your waiter or waitress’s recommendation: “お勧めは何ですか?” (osusume wa nan desu ka? – What do you recommend?).
Alternatively, if you are not sure what something is, you can ask “これは何ですか?” (kore wa nan desu ka? – What is this?).
If you want to eat something that isn’t spicy, then you can ask “あまり辛くない物はどれですか?” (amari karaku nai mono wa dore desu ka? – Which one is not too spicy?).
Asking for other menus is quite easy, as it follows the same sentence structure as asking for an English menu. If you want a children’s menu, simply ask “お子様メニューはありますか?” (okosama menyuu wa arimasu ka? – Do you have a children’s menu?). For a vegetarian menu you can ask “ベジタリアンメニューはありますか?” (bejitarian menyuu wa arimasu ka?– Do you have a vegetarian menu?).
Most people have some ingredient, that they can’t eat or don’t like. If this is the case for you, it is important to learn the word for the food item, and how to say that you don’t want it. If you don’t like eggs (卵 tamago), for example, then you can say “卵を抜きにしてもらえますか?” (tamago wo nuki ni shite moraemasu ka? – Can I have it without egg?).
A different kind of situation that you might come across is the dreaded case that something you ordered is sold out. For example, if your favourite food curry has somehow run out, your server will approach your table and say “申し訳ありません。カレーは本日売り切れてしまいました。メニューから他のものをお選び頂けますか?” (moushiwake arimasen. Karee wa honjitsu urikire te shimaimashita. Menyuu kara hoka no mono wo oerabi itadakemasu ka? – I am terribly sorry, but the curry has sold out. Would you like something else from the menu?).
If you hear this sentence then you will know that you just need to choose something else from the menu.
Finally, depending on where or at what time you are eating, you could hear “ラストオーダーになります。他にご注文はありませんか” (rasuto oodaa ni narimasu. Hoka ni gochuumon wa arimasen ka? – We are now taking last orders. Would you like to order anything else?). Like before, in this case you can either order food as normal or just say “ありません” (arimasen – nothing).
Asking for the Bill and Paying
To ask for the bill, just ask “お勘定をお願いします” (okanjou wo onegai shimasu – Can I have the bill, please?) when you’re ready to pay. In Tokyo it’s common to also say “お会計をお願いします” (okaikei wo onegai shimasu). If the bill was placed on your table earlier, as is done in many small restaurants, take it up to the cashier to pay.
You can then say “ごちそうさまでした” (gochisousama deshita – Thanks for the food) and walk out of the restaurant with a full stomach, along with the satisfaction of successfully having used Japanese to order your meal—without looking like a fool! Way to go!
And One More Thing…
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