All photos courtesy of Royal Sushi Omakase

The One Who Keeps the BookPhiladelphia

How to Get Into Royal Sushi Omakase


Ask any Philadelphian which special occasion dinner they’ve always wanted to experience but have struggled to get a reservation for, and it’s likely that Royal Sushi Omakase will come up.

Since Royal Izakaya opened its doors in 2016, diners have been clamoring for a front-row seat at its sushi counter — a.k.a. Royal Sushi Omakase, where multiple Beard Awards nominee Jesse Ito creates a 17-course meal. With only eight seats available at two seatings per night, eating at this hidden-in-plain-sight Queen Village spot still feels nearly impossible, even seven years later.

The good news? In this installment of The One Who Keeps The Books, we’ve got all the answers to your most important questions.

Resy: How many seats are available?

Jesse Ito: Eight per seating. Six o’clock and 8:15 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.

Has it always been only the two seatings?

Pre-COVID, I had a third seating, a 10 o’clock seating. It used to be six o’clock, eight o’clock, 10 o’clock. I was crazy. I had to make money. I was also young. It was a marathon.

The omakase is pretty much like clockwork: As soon as you sit down I give it about five, 10 minutes, and then I begin. So it’s an hour-and-a-half to do the meal, and then I want to leave some room to get add-ons, to get dessert, a little drink, or just not to feel rushed.

When do reservations drop on Resy?

30 days prior at midnight, so every day another reservation opens.

How quickly do seats get booked out?

Within seconds.

If someone were to set a Notify for Royal Sushi Omakase on Resy, is there a certain day of the week or time they’d be most likely to get a reservation?

You can look for openings around 6 or 8 p.m. due to our 48-hour cancellation policy. That’s when something may open up.

How long is your Notify list?

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday — there’s a Notify waitlist of like 450, 500. And then Friday, Saturday — there’s a waitlist of 500 upwards of like 700. In fall and winter, it definitely gets into the 700s.

Can guests grab a drink at the izakaya up front while they wait to be seated?

Yes. Some regulars from out of town have it planned out: They come an hour early (for parking reasons), they get maybe two dishes or try the specials at the izakaya, have a cocktail or two, and then they’re comfortably ready to go.

Can people request a specific seat?

No, you get sat where you’re sat.

Are there other ways to get a seat or any other tips or tricks you have for getting a seat?

I have customers that literally upgrade to get the Global Dining Access program because when you are on the Notify list and you’re a part of that program, you get more time to get the seat. You get first dibs in that group of people. So that’s like the cheat code and that is what I’ve seen work. Some people have told me, “I got this [Amex] card just so I can get in here.”

You’re also able to rebook while you’re with the server during omakase. Once you’re in, you’re in, but if you can’t make your Resy, you lose it.

For someone going for the first time, what should they expect?

You’re in for my version of what omakase means to me and it’s based on seasonality in Japan and somewhat here [in the States], and that changes mostly quarterly. So it strays a little bit away from very traditional Japanese sushi. My take on sushi is about incorporating different flavors and imparting flavor through unique ways. I like to incorporate a lot of shellfish from America, the East Coast or West Coast, usually the Pacific Northwest.

How would you describe dining at Royal Sushi Omakase compared to other sushi restaurants?

I do everything myself, I don’t spend too much time explaining anything unless you ask me. I say, “Here’s this, eat it, and decide for yourself if you like it.” I’ll tell you the rules, like if I see you trying to put the ginger on top that’s when I get very stern and say, “Don’t do that.” I like the food to speak for itself.

The simple way I describe it is understated refinement. Royal Sushi Omakase has a very unpretentious, low-key vibe because you have the izakaya music and ambience emanating in because it’s all right there. You’re kind of going to a show, and you’re going to experience it with eight people, and we’re going to get to know each other because that’s what happens with me and my customers. It’s a very intimate experience.

Do you have any personal favorites on the menu right now?

I’m doing the geoduck clam from Washington state, which has always been one of my favorites. For the geoduck clam, I’m taking the belly part inside the clam, which is softer and sweeter, and poaching that in a kombu butter, and then I mince it up into a tartare. I top that with shoyu — my soy sauce that I brush on the nigiri — and lemon juice, and a little seaweed. That’s kind of reflective of this dish that I grew up eating. My mom, who’s Korean, would make me this bowl of rice, soy sauce, butter, and nori if I was hungry on the spot and that’s very reminiscent of that for me. For people who aren’t Asian, I think it reminds them of clam steamers or chowder, so it’s a very nostalgic piece across the board.

Fall is going to bring a lot of mackerel since it’s mackerel season in Fukuoka. I’m very excited about the chutoro mackerel — a fatty, small, slender mackerel that’s so delicious. It’s oily but not too strong or gamey like other mackerels.

You’re kind of going to a show, and you’re going to experience it with eight people. Jesse Ito, Royal Sushi Omakase

What’s your favorite time of day at the restaurant?

Prep is great because it’s so zen but service is what I love doing. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and sometimes, you forget how hard it is or how hard it used to be — and service is where I feel at home. I’m so confident the experience is going to go well — I know what I’m doing, I know you’re going to like it, and I know we’re going to have fun.

What kind of music is played inside the restaurant? 

Mostly my music that I love that fits the izakaya. Everyone’s welcome to contribute to the playlist but it has to be vetted, it’s gotta feel right. There are four main playlists: One is indie rock, one is more classic rock like David Bowie and Electric Light Orchestra, one is throwback hip hop with a couple of current things, then the other is funk soul.

It’s Friday night at 8 p.m. Can you set the scene?

There’s going to be people all over outside. You’re going to bypass them, go in, you’re going to be greeted by a host, and you’re going to tell them you’re here for the omakase experience, and you’re going to get sat at 8:15 p.m. You’re going to be presented with a hot or cold towel depending on the weather outside and the menu for the night. You’ll get sat with everyone at the same time. I’ll greet you. And you’ll get your drink orders in and we’ll get started promptly. The first piece arrives 15 minutes later on a stone. It’s like clockwork: Each piece is made and served one at a time, per guest, every four to five minutes.

Royal Sushi Omakase has fierce regulars. Any good stories to share?

It happens every now and then — someone will call up and say they have a reservation and they’ll lie. We can see that Resy shows no reservation. I do check the Reddit forums to make sure it’s not happening. I’m always on Philly Eats reading, too.

Some people fly in from California or Florida. I have regulars from New York and D.C. who keep their ongoing reservations — they’re repeat regulars coming in every three months.

Because omakase is so hard to get into, I feel like most people who are coming really want to be there and know what they’re getting into. But every now and then, there’s a guest or someone who gave the Resy to a friend to go for them. So I do get people who are newer to the omakase and fish. I have multiple regulars now who said they never really ate fish or they didn’t like fish or sushi before, but they are like super regulars at my place.

Looking ahead, what are you most excited for?

I’m trying to come up with some new creative inventive stuff, trying to push sushi forward. That’s what I’m really fired up for. I get a lot of inspiration from other cuisines and how to put that flavor into sushi while keeping it seemingly traditional and seemingly Japanese. I have a lot of ideas buzzing in my head right now for the fall and winter menu. I feel like the direction has already started to change a bit more.

Philly is a come-as-you-are dining town. How is that reflected at Royal?

In terms of the vibe, culture, and the setting, my omakase is where you can come in and be casual. You can roll up in your work outfit or whatever you want to wear — it doesn’t matter. You will still receive great food, great service, and have a great time