Sushi isn’t pretentious. You could even consider it fast food. But whether you pay $500 per person at Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo or $5 for a Western-style roll at Sushi Stop in L.A., you have to respect the decorum of the sushi establishment, or sushiya. To that end, familiarize yourself with sushi etiquette to avoid common foodie faux pas and eat with confidence — it only improves your experience.
Call ahead to inform the restaurant of any dietary restrictions. Also, when visiting a traditional sushiya, especially in Japan, ask if they take credit cards before you order. Don’t wear perfume to a sushi restaurant — not only so you can enjoy the tastes unencumbered, but so other guests can, too.
Expect to hear “irasshaimase!” when you enter most sushiya, either from the hostess or in tandem from the itamae. It’s a simple welcome and you only need to respond to with a nod or a subtle smile. If you want to watch the itamae prepare your sushi, request seats at the counter. He might engage you, particularly if you know a little Japanese, or he might work in silence, it depends on the mood. Do not tip the itamae. If you’re a regular, feel free to order him a glass of sake or beer as a show of appreciation after your meal.
Order from “light to heavy.” You get the most out of your sushi experience when you start off with lean fish and build up to the bold, fatty fish. Start with sashimi to “warm the plate.” Next, move on to mild white fish, such as shiira (mahi mahi) or izumidai (red snapper), followed by silver selections, such as sanma (Pacific saury) and sayori (Japanese halfbeak). Finish bold with choices such as sake (salmon), sawara (Spanish mackerel) and toro (tuna belly). Order tamagoyaki (almost like a sweetened Japanese omelet) and norimaki (a simple sushi roll) to signify the end of your meal. Don’t order drinks or non-sushi items from the itamae, servers take care of those items.
Order the omakase if you don’t know what to order. Omakase roughly translates as “I leave it to you,” referring to a chef’s choice type of experience. Omakase grants the itamae the creative freedom to show their skills and offer the best ingredients, which all but guarantees you’re in for a good showing. Almost like a tasting, omakase can include up to 12 dishes. Note that small noodle shops and chain restaurants usually can’t fulfill an omakase order. Above average and high-end sushiya — basically any place that gets their ingredients fresh daily — can, and almost always to the joy of the open-minded guest.
Ask before taking pictures. Well-crafted sushi is natural food porn and the compulsion to record it seems insurmountable for a lot of folks. But it’s annoying, and some shops frown on it, particularly the old school-type sushiya in Japan. Ask and you’ll likely be obliged, but if you start Instagramming the itamae, hostess, bathroom, wall coverings, décor, menu, chairs or whatever random impedimenta happens to pique your interest, don’t be surprised by serious looks of admonishment, and itamae always wear looks of serious admonishment when working, so don’t take it to another level.
Eat sushi with your hands to experience the texture, but always eat sashimi with chopsticks. Eat the sushi in one bite to experience the layers of flavor at once, as the itamae intended. If you’re intent on using chopsticks, always grasp the sushi from the side (parallel to the plate), not from the the top.
Don’t rub your chopsticks together. Why would you rub your chopsticks together, anyway? Cheap chopsticks often have splinters or threads of wood hanging from them, and rubbing smooths the surface. It’s like telling the shop they have cheap silverware. When not in use and when finished, place your chopsticks parallel in front of you and on the holder or on the bowl of shoyu, never on the plate or table.
Use soy sauce sparingly. Sushi comes seasoned with shoyu (soy sauce). If you absolutely must satisfy your soy craving, turn the sushi upside down on the plate and lightly touch the fish (or other topping) to the sauce. Never dip sushi rice-side down in the sauce.
Avoid using extra wasabi if you can and never mix it with shoyu. Mixing the two is crass. No one will kick you out for it, but it’s like adding salt to a well-seasoned steak, and indicates the chef didn’t use enough when building the sushi or that you have an unrefined palate.
Use the handle end of chopsticks if eating a piece of sushi off your dining companion’s plate. Sharing is common among Westerners visiting a sushiya, and there’s nothing wrong with it. If you do share from another plate, transfer the sushi to your plate using the handles (the part of the chopsticks you hold) and then use the “working ends” of the chopsticks to put it in your mouth. Never hand food to your companion using chopsticks, allow them to take it from your plate.
Finish everything on your plate. Leaving food on your plate in a sushiya says you were displeased. If you have a problem with the sushi, tell the itamae.
Leave promptly after you finish eating. Sushiya are designed for customer turnover, not kicking it for a couple hours after the meal. You don’t have to rush, but spend no more than one-and-a-half hours if only eating food and around two hours if you have a sake or beer after.
These guidelines are exactly that — guidelines, and thus aren’t set in stone. Sushi is a dynamic entity, especially in Japan. You can apply these tips to all sushiya, but you should certainly follow them at any high-end establishment you visit.