I would never reject a restaurant solely because it lacked some of these elements. But here are 10 hallmarks that I've found to be common among the best sushi bars:

1) When you enter the restaurant (probably by passing under a heavy linen banner) the itamae (chef) greets you with a shouted "irrashai!" which is short for "welcome."

2) After you are seated at the bar, an oshibori (hot washcloth) materializes immediately.

3) Followed by a mug of agari (green tea).

4) The bar itself is either bare wood or very plainly finished. The fish are on display in the refrigerated case in front of you.

5) At the bar, you order sushi directly from the itamae, never through a waitperson.

6) There is a whiteboard listing the special fish of the day.

7) The whiteboard and the menus are in both English and Japanese (an indication the restaurant has a significant Japanese clientele).

8) At the bar, the sushi is served on geta (plain wood planks) rather than plates.

9) Even the most mundane detail shows an awareness of aesthetics -- the arc of the fish over the pad of rice, the proportion of rice to fish, the placement of a tiny piece of scallion, etc. Sushi is simple food, and at its best it is simply beautiful.

10) A sushi bar is not a formal dining venue. It's the original fast-food joint, with a centuries-old convivial tradition. There is a certain warmth and clubbiness to the best sushi bars that corresponds roughly to the homey feel of British pubs or Mediterranean cafes. Aside from the quality of the fish, perhaps the one sure sign you're probably in the right place is when you find yourself thinking: "Gee, this is really nice. I feel very relaxed here."

Two signs you're not in the right place.

Copyright 2006-2008, David Plotnikoff. All rights reserved. No part of this document may be reproduced without permission.