I was 18 years old when I first traveled to Tokyo – and I quickly realized that it was one of my favorite places on earth.
I’ve been back ever since, but no matter how many times I come here, I always want to come back and see even more of it than I’ve already seen.
However, it is not often that you can finance a trip to one of the most expensive countries in the world – and sit out the agonizingly long flight.
Luckily there are places in the UK where I can satiate my urge to get a taste of Japanese life.
One of these is in London, right next to Leicester Square.
Despite being in a very touristy area, it’s not a particularly well-known place, although it should be.
Describing itself as a “living ramen museum,” Panton Yokocho is adorned with red lanterns, retro music posters, and Japanese toys.
The restaurant has done a great job of capturing the atmosphere of a bygone Tokyo alleyway and transporting it to central London.
It’s almost like taking a long-haul flight just by stepping through the door, which can be identified by looking out on the street for the animatronic chopsticks lifting noodles out of a giant bowl.
Additionally, Panton Yokocho is very popular with homesick Japanese visitors and expats, making it an even more authentic experience.
It also shows how good the food is.
For a reasonably priced menu, the options are almost as tasty as some of the better ramen I’ve tried in cities across Japan.
The spicy miso ramen has the perfect blend of spice and umami flavors in its broth, while the Napoli ramen offers a mix of Italian and Japanese food for those who want to try something different.
All ramen are dated indicating both the year and the city in which they were made – an example of the “museum” element the restaurant is aiming for.
As interesting as that is, what’s really great about Panton is how immersive the dining experience is.
The food and the decoration harmonize perfectly with each other, without anyone having to be called or placed afterwards.
Without the former it risks being a cheesy gimmick, without the latter it’s just a good pasta restaurant, of which London is plentiful.
But both elements really set the restaurant apart and keep people like me coming back to spend a bit of time pretending I’m back in one of my favorite countries.
Even the drinks menu is well thought out, which is not always the case in such themed restaurants.
Melon cream soda is a popular drink in Japan, especially with kids, and the one in Panton Yokocho is as sweet and bright as I remember.
The bright green concoction is served with a tasty dollop of Tokyo-style ice cream and is a delight to slurp along with the noodles.
The cocktails are also excellent, using Japanese and East Asian flavors to create a drink collection unlike anywhere else in the city.
Both the dirty lychee and the shochu sour were very well received and at just £7 each during happy hour (Mon-Thu 4-6pm) it’s worth trying a few.
At first I was skeptical of how good Panton Yokocho would be as many restaurants around Leicester Square overpromised and overcharged.
However, it was an excellent reminder of why I love Japan so much and why I need to go back there as soon as possible.
For now, Panton will be a good enough replacement.
Meanwhile, we tried the Squid Game experience in London – and made it out alive.
And this new, immersive Paddington Bear attraction is coming to London later this year.