Three years ago, hearts were broken when Yamaguchi’s Sake and Tapas announced their closure. But the closing of this iconic Lexington eatery was not the end of its legacy. Yamaguchi’s continued to bring authentic Japanese cuisine to the Lexington food scene as the occasional white tent pop up. Now executive Chef Hidenori Yamaguchi has exchanged the tent for a new brick and mortar restaurant.
“Everyone in the restaurant business knows Yamaguchi and considers him a master chef, one of the top in Lexington,” says Ralph Quillin, owner and founder of Oscar Diggs and Rooster Brewing.
“When we did our first chef dinner with chef Yamaguchi a while back, the tickets sold out in 14 minutes.”
The former Yamaguchi’s location was tucked away on Codell Drive. When the lease was up in 2015, chef Yamaguchi and his wife, Shima Yamaguchi, never intended to deprive Lexington permanently. New projects were soon in the works.
“After visiting and researching cities like Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Tokyo, Fukuoka, and LA, we found there is no place like Lexington,” says Chef Yamaguchi.
The new Yamaguchi’s opened June 8 in the former Rain Damage Skate Shop, on the corner of Upper and West 6th Street.
Their grand opening was more of a soft opening since only friends and old regulars knew about it. Chef Wyatt Sarbacker attended — his order was written on a napkin and the menu on a piece of paper.
“Having opened restaurants, I know how stressful it can all be. I was able to have some of my favorite items from the restaurant, and as prep continued, more items were added to the menu,” says Sarbacker.
“I think the new setting is a great gathering spot. It will encourage conversation and for people to be in the moment with one another.”
The small, intimate restaurant has no kitchen and is standing room only. It’s a bar first with food meant to only complement drinks. The menu focuses on small bar bites that change weekly.
“We keep our menu small so there won’t be too much focus on food. That’s one of the major reasons why we closed our old place,” says Yamaguchi. “We will close again if more people begin to come to eat my food as a meal or dinner rather than to mingle, hang out, socialize, or relax.”
Even with the new restaurant, the Yamaguchis aren’t ready to retire their tent. While restaurant hours are limited, Yamaguchi’s will continue to pop up at Country Boy Brewing every Wednesday from 5-10 pm.
Chef Yamaguchi’s favorite part of doing pops up is meeting and introducing new people to casual Japanese food cooked by a real Japanese person. It’s word of mouth and support from their cult following of food fans that has kept and will continue to keep one of Lexington’s best kept secrets in business.
“As for convincing someone who has never had Yamaguchi’s to try it?” says Sarbacker. “I don’t think I associate with anyone who wouldn’t want to try it.”
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