Wife and I came had an 11-day trip to Japan, all in Tokyo and Kyoto. Trying lots of good restaurants was definitely on the agenda. I did a lot of research on websites like chowhound, chuckeats, wanderingepicures, yukari sakamoto, etc.
Below I list our Kyoto places by type (in alpha order); I made a separate post for Tokyo. My prices are from memory. I put an ** by my top-picks or must-do's.
If a restaurant is reviewed extensively elsewhere on the internet, I won't say much more about it. I'll usually provide a link to the review I found most helpful.
In general, food in Kyoto is amazingly good. Its been a region and city of foodies for hundreds of years! There are probably great choices for everything so no need to feel like you're missing out if you can't get a res at a particular place. Your second or third choice is probably just as good as your first choice.
* Bakery. Briant. NW Kyoto.
Across from street, due south from the SW corner of Hirano Shrine. We came across it while cycling up to Kinkakuji Temple. French and Japanese style pastries. Very very good. See pic below.
** Curry Rice. Ryokaku (Gion).
Must try (I think there may be no peer)!
$11/entrée (excellent value). I had the pork katsu curry. This is the best curry rice I have ever had (or probably ever could)!
Its affiliated with the best spice shop in Kyoto (400 years, etc), the spice shop was on our to-do list and the curry rice café was an unexpected bonus.
This curry is just perfect, deep flavors, right amount of heat, thinner consistency like a stew (no lard). The tonkatsu it came with was very good as well. I think the rice was optimized for curry rice, it seemed softer and absorbed more curry. If I lived in Kyoto, I’d come here all the time.
I'll say this is the best food bang-for-the buck we experienced in 11 days in Japan!! See pic below.
* Kaiseki. Giro Giro (or Guillo Guillo).
Great value. I think it was only $35pp. That's pretty incredible.
We sat at a table on the 2nd floor. Food was tasty, fun. Fun atmosphere, especially for kaiseki.
I see some chowhound reviews that dog Giro Giro for not being as good as the top kaiseki places. My view that is a wrong and unfair comparison. Giro Giro is 5-15% of the cost of the top kaiseki in Kyoto, what are you expecting? Its a fun casual kaiseki, I don't think its representing itself as a Maizen or whatever.
** Kaiseki. Hana Kitcho (Gion).
We sat at the counter on 1st floor, chose the $220 pp set (happy to pay it).
Very excellent: Food, service, very beautiful dishware (best we saw).
Even though it was $220 pp, it was an excellent value!
Here's a very detailed review:
These pictures don't even do justice to how pretty the presentations are. See my pics below of the mini-lily pad pond soup and the gold duck dishware.
Maizen was my top choice for top-level kaiseki but that's a tough reservation.
Market. Nishiki Market.
Many tasty nibbles and samples.
The octopus oden-on-a-stick was very good. I'm not sure what its called, I don't think it is takoyaki. You can't miss the stand, its on the south side, at a corner of street, near the Arigutsu shop. Always a long line.
* Tofu Master. Tosuiro.
If you like tofu, you may be interested in seeing its many varieties in a 8 (or so) course meal. We liked it very much and learned a lot.
A few general notes to help first-time visitors.
1. Most places do not do anything different to cater to foreigner customers; its not they are hostile to foreigners or anything. I would definitely not limit myself to English-friendly places. You can work around it and it will be worth it.
2. Making reservations is crucial for top-level places, as early as possible. I used my hotel concierge for most. It is hard to do directly (most don't speak English). If you make a res, please don't be inconsiderate about cancelling. Inconsiderate cancellation by foreigners is making it hard for foreigners to get reservations.
3. At many places, Japanese beer and sake are the only alcohol options. Few have wine and almost no one has wine by the glass. The upside is that there seems to be no markup on the alcohol they do serve.