An Expert's Guide to the Best Restaurants in Nagano

There's not a single chain in Nagano, where independent restaurants make up the dining scene
There's not a single chain in Nagano, where independent restaurants make up the dining scene | © Takatoshi Kurikawa / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Grace Coleman
3 April 2020

While many Japanese cities have direct ocean access, Nagano is tucked snugly into high-altitude mountains, meaning chefs here have to be particularly creative in the kitchen. Many of the city’s best restaurants have seasonal menus that focus on using fruit, vegetables and animal products that are native to the mountainous region.

Tyler Lynch, a gourmet food guide for guests at Kamesei Ryokan, a Japanese-style inn in Nagano prefecture, says: “Nagano’s restaurant scene is what you make of it. Our town alone (Togura, Nagano) has 100+ restaurants and not a single national chain. They are all run by an owner-chef. At many of them, you can sit at the counter and chat with the chef and regular customers.” This makes dining in Nagano a friendly, intimate experience. And, due to the use of fresh, local ingredients, dining out in Nagano means crisp, natural flavours and menus that are unique from the rest of Japan. As Lynch suggests: “Many of the restaurants are as quirky as their owners in both décor and signature dishes.”

Culture Trip spoke to Lynch alongside classically trained Japanese chef, Kayo Nakajima – head chef at Nagano’s Northstar Alpine Lodge – for their suggestions of the best restaurants in Nagano.

Many of Nagano’s best restaurants serve seasonal menus | © Judy Bellah / Alamy Stock Photo
Chefs in Nagano have to be particularly creative | © Henry Westheim Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

信州小麦ラーメン 亀屋 (Ramen Kame-ya)

Restaurant, Japanese, Asian, $$$
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“Eating good ramen is an almost religious experience – in Nagano alone we have a wide variety of ramen shops,” says Lynch. “If you want good miso ramen, go to Kame-ya. If you like taking photos of your food, you’ll appreciate that their dishes are served with gorgeous toppings.” Menu specialities include Kame-ya’s lemon-infused tsukemen ramen (noodles dipped in a separate bowl of soup or broth), picture-perfect miso and pan-fried gyoza. As with most traditional Japanese ramen shops, the interior is cosy, warm and filled with natural accents such as cloth curtains and rich wood panelling. However, Kame-ya also has a retro café-like feel – which is quite unique for a ramen place – with a laid-back atmosphere where patrons can sip their miso broth while watching busy chefs cook egg noodles to perfection, before garnishing each bowl of ramen with care.

St. Cousair Winery Restaurant

Restaurant, Wine Seller, Italian, $$$
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St. Cousair Winery Restaurant overlooks a vineyard landscape with veiled mountains in the distance. The aroma of fine wine mingled with the Italian-themed winery buildings and décor will transport you instantly to the heart of Europe. “Enjoy fresh Nagano meats, fish à la carte and homemade wine at this European-style grill,” says Chef Nakajima. There’s also authentic European-style sausage, charcoal-grilled beef or creamy Italian pasta, all of which can be paired with a refreshing glass of wine from St. Cousair’s own cellar. The establishment also hosts winery tours, tastings and artisan sausage-making classes – check the website for upcoming events.

Kaya

Restaurant, Japanese, Gluten-free, $$$
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Located a stride or two from Togura Station, Kaya embodies the ambience and flavours of the heart of Nagano – fresh soba, zesty wasabi and home-brewed sake. “This is one of the most highly regarded soba restaurants in our prefecture,” says Lynch. Housed in a historic, thatched-roof sake brewery, this intimate home-like setting gives visitors the chance to savour one of Nagano’s signature dishes (soba) in an Edo Period setting. Once you’re seated on the tatami floor, you will be served – as Lynch explains – a bowl of “fresh soba noodles with wasabi root, which you can grate over your food to amplify the flavours”. Kaya also offers some soba that is made entirely from ground buckwheat – enabling those with gluten allergies to partake in this flavourful Nagano speciality. Pro tip: gluten-free dinners should substitute salt for dipping sauces as most aren’t gluten free.

Doon Shokudo Indoyama

Restaurant, Indian, Vegan, Gluten-free
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Recommended by Chef Nakajima, Doon Shokudo Indoyama is the place to go if you are in search of authentic, affordable Indian cuisine in Nagano; made from in-house recipes and served by a passionate chef. On the menu are aromatic vegan curries served on a bed of steamed rice, as well as non-vegan options, such as a satiating keema curry with a warm chapati. The owner is allergy-savvy and almost all of the menu items are gluten free – except for the chapati. Make sure that you let the owner know of your dietary restrictions upon arrival, so that he can avoid cross-contamination during cooking.

Vino della Gatta SAKAKI

Restaurant, Italian
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“Nagano is home to a number of authentic Italian restaurants,” says Lynch. “Of these, the food at Vino della Gatta SAKAKI is superb and is where I take my parents when they visit.” As for the drinks, “Vino della Gatta SAKAKI is a restaurant attached to a winery, so you get excellent Italian dishes while sipping Nagano’s best wine”. Vino della Gatta SAKAKI has an in-house sommelier, which means that a visit will give you an unrivalled wine experience accompanied by delicious charcoal-grilled Tateshina beef sirloin. Looking for a lighter main? The restaurant’s home-made tagliolini pasta dish is a must. Vino della Gatta SAKAKI offers four different dinner sets at a range of prices. Choosing the simplest set (Course A) will get you two starters and pasta as your main, followed by a dolce and coffee to end your meal. If you’re feeling especially fancy, go for Vino della Gatta SAKAKI’s Course D, which includes a starter, creamy risotto, pasta, a meat and fish plate, and the restaurant’s dolce and coffee dessert.

Mannacktable

Restaurant, French, Japanese, Fusion
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“The unique thing about Mannacktable is that they have no set menu,” says Chef Nakajima. Instead, the menu changes daily and can include any number of French dishes prepared from seasonal, local produce. Another unique aspect of Mannacktable is that the French-inspired dishes utilise the chef’s creative flair by incorporating elements from Japanese cuisine and his own innovations. Unlike other fine-dining restaurants, none of the dishes at Mannacktable have names. Instead, the chef goes for foraging walks each morning in the countryside where he gathers wild flowers, leaves and other flora to inspire the menu of the day. The chef uses these foraged morning collections within his dishes as aromatics or decor – creating a food experience that will delight your palate, amaze your eyes and overwhelm you with the beauty and presentation of your dish.

ジンギスカン 万蔵 (Manzo)

Restaurant, Japanese, $$$
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“Besides fresh soba made from locally sourced buckwheat, Nagano is famous for raising sheep, resulting in mutton being a very popular regional dish,” explains Lynch, who suggests a visit to Manzo, where guests can enjoy a traditional-style Japanese restaurant, complete with floor seating and lamb-chop grilling at your own table. Manzo’s speciality is their ‘Gengis Khan’ meal which includes tasty mutton marinated in the restaurant’s very own secret sauce. Pro tip: Manzo only accepts cash payments, so make sure that you bring enough yen with you.

Hikariya Nishi

Restaurant, French, $$$
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Chef Nakajima describes Hikariya Nishi as a haven where you can get “natural French food created from fresh Nagano vegetables”. The menu changes with the seasons, in step with the prefecture’s farms. If you visit in the spring, you can look forward to working through Hikariya Nishi’s famous Symphonie meal set, which delivers 10 delectable courses of French-inspired Japanese delicacies, including a piping-hot shiitake mushroom terrine, a sweet bean croquet with shrimp sauce and a dish made from bamboo shoots bathed in butter — all dishes created from fresh spring crops. During colder months, guests can enjoy meal courses that include black rice, fresh shrimp croquet and a series of seasonal meats including fish, caviar and crab.

Mai Thai

Restaurant, Thai
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In the mood for Southeast Asian cuisine in Nagano? Lynch strongly recommends Mai Thai. “When it comes to international cuisine, I’m a snob for Thai food and Nagano’s Mai Thai is superb. If you’re not sure what to order, ask for the Holy Triad (curry, pad thai noodles and soup), or ask the chef to make a personal recommendation.” Mai Thai is bathed in moody, dim lighting, with accents of red upholstery and shiny gold furnishings. Enjoy imported Thai beer in the restaurant’s sleek pub-like setting. If you are visiting alone, the restaurant has a bar counter where you can drink your beer and enjoy your meal. Otherwise, if you are dining with others, savour the interactive experience of grilling right at your table and eating slices of piping-hot meat with a colourful array of vegetable side dishes.

These recommendations were updated on April 3, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.