An Excellent Pub: Standing Bar Clover, Shinjuku, Tokyo / by Amy Thibodeau

Dan, Mitsuhashi and Me at Standing Bar Clover

When I was a kid, I loved to watch the American sit-com Cheers. I loved Sam, Diane, Carla, Norm, Woody and of course Cliff Claven. Despite the fact that the show took place almost entirely inside a bar in Boston, and as someone under the age of ten I didn't drink and had little experience in the way of bars, I loved the camaraderie of the characters and related to the idea that everyone - grown ups and kids alike - really want to find a place where 'everybody knows your name'.

As a teenager and then adult in the Canadian prairies, my friends and I inevitably found places that we frequented. In Regina, Saskatchewan where I grew up it was The Cathedral Village Freehouse, O'Hanlons and La Bodega. But I went to these places mostly because it's where my friends were going to be and because Regina doesn't have a huge selection of really awesome places to have a good night out (shocking, but true). I love my home town but the nightlife isn't really something that draws people to the city that sees upwards of eight months of harsh, windblown winters. The point is, for the most part these places didn't necessarily offer anything special - the prices and food weren't great, they were large and often filled with people I didn't know and the service didn't stand out. They won out mostly by default in a town with little else to offer.

When I moved to the UK in the autumn of 2008, I found that people took the concept of the local pub to another level. Every neighborhood had a local pub (usually it stunk of urine and stale beer) that would be filled to capacity with people watching matches on television or eating the all important Sunday lunch. In Cardiff, Wales (where I first lived) it was the Pen and Wig (known sometimes as The Pig) or most unfortunately the Wetherspoons chain (because it was cheap). These places were appealing only because they were familiar and often filled with friends and co-workers but in and of themselves they offered nothing special - relatively unfriendly service and low prices with low quality fare to match.

After moving to London I discovered some very cool bars and pubs - Slim Jim's in Islington, the bizarre End of the World in Camden, London Bridge's tiny Bar Rake with its weird range of beers, and Gordon's in Embankment, which is accessed by a steep staircase that takes you underground into an ancient dungeon-like wine bar with low sloped ceilings. We loved these places, but maybe it's because going out is so expensive in London or because we were both a bit worn down by endless work, we only went to each a handful of times. I didn't necessarily feel like anyone knew my name at these places or cared one way or another about my night, as long as I kept spending money.

This brings me to Standing Bar Clover in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo - at last, my own real life version of Cheers. We recently spent six weeks living in Tokyo and were lucky enough to stumble into this tiny place in our first week. It's located down a small alley, about ten minutes walk from Shinjuku Station. Unlike my hometown, there are endless opportunities to go out in Tokyo - but something very special kept me coming back to Bar Clover.

Tokyo can be overwhelming for a foreigner. Despite being a major city, you can often walk for miles and not see another non-Japanese tourist, which is something we loved but that also made us feel constantly aware of our difference. After moving into our small studio apartment, we spent some time exploring our immediate area: we had a grocery store across the alley, numerous convenience stores and an array of curry and ramen shops. Located in Shinjuku, we were surrounded by bars and pubs but many of them were either geared to a gaijin crowd and were imitation British pubs or they had crazy seating charges - just to come in for a beer you could pay as much as 2,000 Yen (about £16), even if the place was just a tiny stall and was completely empty.

Standing Bar Clover - Owner and Staff
Standing Bar Clover - Owner and Staff

Standing Bar Clover, My Favorite Pub in Tokyo

Standing Bar Clover is special. It is very small but absolutely spotless. On Halloween they had a party and the place was packed all night. Even at 2 am, the tiny one-stall bathroom was perfectly clean with not so much as a single piece of hand towel on the floor. Most nights of the week the owner Tatsuya Mitsuhashi is there and despite not speaking much English he is welcoming and friendly - in fact we first had the courage to go in when we were trying to translate his street sign and he came out and warmly invited us to come in. Posted throughout the bar, you'll see their motto: Life is a wonderful thing when you have a friend who can tell you a good story. It's some of the only English you'll see in Standing Bar Clover, and they take its meaning very much to heart.

The bar is small but has a really nice menu of mostly Izakaya style Japanese pub food including things like karaage (deep friend meat, in this case chicken), fried potatoe (i.e. french fries), edamame and our favorite: the onion rings. I can honestly say without a doubt that the onion rings at Standing Bar Clover are the best I've ever had. After you order them you can watch Tatsuya or one of his staff peel and cut up a fresh onion, dredge each ring in batter and then deep fry it for you. The batter is more like a tempura batter than a heavy breading and they are absolutely perfect - and cheap at only about 350 Yen for a big plate. Also, there is no cover charge at Standing Bar Clover - even on weekends when it tends to be busy - but like the same implies, you may have to stand if all the seats are occupied.

The drink selection is pretty vast for such a small place and again, the prices are very reasonable. Beer and most highballs cost between 300 and 400 Yen and even sake is less than 500 Yen for a very generous helping. But most importantly, the service is friendly and attentive in a very genuine way. These people are not going through the motions - after the first visit they feel like friends.

We established a bit of a routine and visited Clover Bar often during our six weeks in Tokyo. Every time we were greeted by a warm welcome, a pulling up of tall bar stools and, when it got colder, an offer to hang up our coats. After the second visit, they knew our orders and smiled knowingly as they brought our usual - nama beeru for Dan (draft beer) and a Suntory highball for me - usually with a plate of onion rings. Although the only other non-Japanese people we saw in Clover Bar were generally those we brought with us, the other patrons were also friendly and welcoming. We had many conversations in English, Japanese and with a bit of hand-gesturing and miming thrown in with people welcoming us, asking us what we were doing in Tokyo and where we came from. We've even exchanged email addresses and kept in contact with some of these people. And no matter how busy it is, if Tatsuya is working, he always takes the time to walk his guests out into the alley with a smile and an 'Arigato Gozimasu!'.

Now that we've left Tokyo for Osaka and are once again trying to figure out our local neighborhood, we've both been keeping a watch for somewhere to replace Standing Bar Clover, but the truth is that a truly good pub is hard to find. For two slightly world weary travelers, the friendliness of this unimposing place made us feel like there was somewhere we really belonged and people who really cared.

If you are ever in Tokyo and you are looking for a friendly, laid back place to go I highly recommend you wander a bit off the beaten tourist track and stop in. Say Amy and Dan sent you.

Finding Standing Bar Clover, Shinjuku

Standing Bar Clover Map
Standing Bar Clover Map
  • Go out the West Exit of Shinjuku Station (make sure you go up to the street level exit - the first time we did this we were down on the lower level and things become a bit complicated if you try to exit without first going to the main floor).
  • When you step out of the station, there should be a busy road in front of you. Turn right and follow the busy road down past a bunch of shops and restaurants. Within about five minutes you'll reach a major intersection (you'll know it because to your right there will be a bridge with an underpass). Keep going straight, following the same road.
  • As you cross the major intersection, on the opposite side of the street on the left hand side, you'll see a big clock attached to a light colored building. The clock is on the side of the street you want to be on - cross over again if necessary.
  • Continue walking forward down the same street. You'll pass about four side streets and a few alleys. Look for a Sunkus convenience store, which will be on the same side of the street as you are on. Just across the alley from the Sunkus is a 711 store. Take a left turn, going down the little alleyway that runs between the Sunkus and the 711. To your right you'll see a Closet Child store and eventually a hair extension salon. To your left in this alley is Standing Bar Clover. Look for some signs out in the alley way  - they will be in Japanese but you should see a Clover drawn on them. Standing Bar Clover is on the main floor.
  • Google Maps probably won't help you much. In my experience the service is pretty bunk for finding anything in Tokyo, particularly down the narrow little alley ways of Shinjuku.
  • Despite being a bit out of the way, Standing Bar Clover is quite easy to find and only about a 10 or 15 minute walk at most from Shinjuku Station and very worth it for the friendly staff, low beer prices and lack of cover charge.

What are your favorite pubs and why? Location doesn't matter. Tell us in the comments below.