The Story of a Culinary Legend

Alastair Bland |
Food And Dining

“Yoshi’s is the anchor of all the growth here. Once we were established, the rest followed.” —Artistic Director Derek Hunter

Rhythms are changing at Yoshi’s San Francisco. The six-year-old Fillmore Street landmark first gained its reputation as a jazz club, with a longer history in the genre going back to the early 1970s in the East Bay. But now, the popular venue anchored in the heart of the evolving Fillmore District is becoming increasingly known for the eclectic array of performers who play on the Yoshi’s San Francisco stage and entertain audiences with a wide range of musical styles. Peter Murphy—dubbed the “king of goth”—recently played at Yoshi’s San Francisco, as have Erykah Badu, the Winery Dogs, The Dramatics, and Graham Nash.

But off the stage, there is another force at play here. It's quieter, yet is as much an attraction as the music: the food. In 2008, just a year after it opened on Fillmore Street, the San Francisco location received a recommendation from the discerning Michelin Guide, drawing the spotlight onto the modern Japanese cuisine of Yoshi's original Executive Chef Shotaro “Sho” Kamio, who has also been a pivotal figure in the kitchen of Yoshi’s Oakland location. Indeed, Yoshi’s San Francisco is the only venue in the Bay Area that provides Michelin-grade dining as well as performances by world-class musicians.

That’s how it’s always been. Since a young woman named Yoshie Akiba dropped the “e” off her first name and established Yoshi’s Japanese Restaurant in Berkeley in 1972 with then husband Kaz Kajimura, the business was anchored on a foundation of food and live music. Through those early years, Yoshi’s reputation grew as the venue became respected as a jazz hub. Before the end of the decade, the original 25-seat space had become unable to meet the demands of the increasingly popular venue, and in 1977, the restaurant was relocated to a larger space in Oakland. Twenty years later, Yoshi’s moved again to Jack London Square, and 10 years after that, in 2007, doors opened to a completely new second location across the Bay.

Here, Yoshi’s San Francisco emerged into a time of economic distress—and rebound. The Fillmore is now on the rise, growing and maturing as numerous restaurants, cafés, and bars make the entire neighborhood an increasingly attractive destination.

“But Yoshi’s is the anchor of all that growth,” says Derek Hunter, artistic director for the venue. “Once we were established, the rest followed.”

Music—especially jazz—is a major draw to the neighborhood, which includes the S.F. Jazz Heritage Center. But Yoshi’s has made an effort in the past few years to include artists of different genres and draw a wider variety of listeners. Bluegrass, country, rock, and soul all sound through Yoshi’s San Francisco's main performance room, known simply as the Club.

The menu has evolved over the years as well, but Chef Kamio’s signature items remain staples—like his Shellfish and Dashi Risotto, American Wagyu Beef Carpaccio, Roasted Masami Pork Belly, and Shishito Peppers. Through the calendar year, the rest of the menu cycles as produce, wild seafood, and foraged mushrooms swing in and out of season. Dungeness crab, kabocha squash, and persimmon are all likely to appear during the cooler months.

Yoshi’s also offers an assortment of sushi. The Sashimi Sampler showcases five types of fish and shellfish, including sushi staples like eel and uni, while the Heirloom Tomato Sashimi—a summer-fall specialty—bridges classic Japanese cuisine with the almost-anything-goes approach of California cooking. Other creative cultural blends include a Peruvian ceviche sushi roll, a Mexican-inspired roll made with tuna, jalapeño, cilantro, avocado, and lime; and a Cajun roll of crab and spicy basil aïoli.

A variety of beer and wine satisfies most thirsts, though Yoshi’s extensive sake list best complements the menu. The assembly features a few American brands, though the heart of the collection is the Japanese brands of numerous styles and premium quality, with a few high-end sakes of note—notably the Yumedono.

The main floor dining room, dressed in its beautiful Japanese décor of delicate paper lanterns, streaming drapes, and polished wood surfaces, awaits diners. Another fixture in this location is a performing stage near the door, on which artists play several nights a week—part of the ongoing Local Talent Series, which features complimentary live music at dinner hours.

Other diners may prefer the glass-enclosed Omakase Room, where private parties are treated to a traditional Japanese experience in which the chef customizes a tasting menu for the group. Set apart from the hustle of the main floor is the Irori Room, where guests remove their shoes upon entering and sit on the floor at a low-set table for a traditional Japanese family-style dinner. Two lounge areas—one on ground level, the other on the mezzanine—offer a moodier ambience, of sleek furniture and cocktails with industrial elements of cement, steel, and nightclub-hued lights shaping the environs.

But the best view in the house, and the one for which most people come to Yoshi’s, is the one in the Club. Doors here open about an hour before show time, and tables are complimentary for guests with tickets to the show. If you include balcony seating, the Club houses up to 400 people for a concert. Artists like Poncho Sanchez, Kenny G, Eva Ayllón, and Macy Gray have all worked the stage here, and upcoming shows will feature the Tommy Igoe Big Band, John Waters, and Mason Jennings.

Yoshi’s San Francisco has grown, the surrounding neighborhoods have changed, and the music has evolved. Still, Yoshi’s isn’t much different than it was in its early days in Berkeley. Then, the very first visitors came for the food. Now, 40 years later, they’re still coming for the food, but staying for the show—even if it isn’t jazz.