Yoshi’s Cafe, a Franco-Japanese pioneer, will close after 39 years in Lakeview

In the six years since her husband’s death, Nobuko Katsumura has worked harder than ever to ensure that her pioneering Lakeview restaurant, Yoshi’s Cafe, thrive in an ocean of adversity. Even more recently during the pandemic, Katsumura has worked tirelessly to ensure that generations of loyal customers can enjoy the restaurant’s unique blend of Japanese and French cuisine.

But after a 39-year run at Lakeview, the end of Yoshi’s Cafe is here. Katsumura informed her staff on Thursday that the restaurant would close on Sunday, December 12. She made a deal to sell the restaurant space on the southeast corner of Halsted and Aldine. Katsumura says the buyer is local and the buying should be positive for the community. She did not reveal the buyer’s plans, but said another restaurant was not in the works. The case happened quickly.

“I tried to keep the restaurant in place,” says Katsumura, who is 69 years old. “We’re doing pretty well. But it’s time for me to move on to the next chapter.

Katsumura says she is thrilled to spend more time with her grandchildren and children (daughter Mari was the driving force and chef at Michelin starred restaurant Yugen in West Loop, her son Ken stepped in as chef and even cooked up a special barbecue on weekends during the pandemic). But mom admits that the future and the great stranger are a bit scary. For the past four decades, she has devoted herself to the restaurant, working alongside her husband, Chef Yoshi Katsumura.

Nobuko and the late Yoshi Katsumura pose in front of their Lakeview restaurant where a section bears the chef’s name.
Yoshi’s Coffee

In 2014, the city added “Honorary Yoshi Katsumura Way” under the road sign in front of the restaurant. They have built something special for the customers and the staff. As the restaurant industry suffers from a labor shortage, Yoshi’s Cafe has had no problem retaining employees. Among the workers notified on Thursday were employees who have spent more than two decades working for the Katsumura. It’s a real family at Yoshi, says Katsumura. Some of her employees call her “mom”. They called Yoshi “daddy”. Although breaking the news to these longtime workers was sad, Noboko Katsumura says they understood it was time. There were tears shed.

Yoshi and Nobuko Katsumura emigrated from Japan to America in the 1970s. Chef Katsumura was trained in French and Japanese cuisine and used ingredients Chicagoans had never seen before. His wife says that her husband dared to use enoki mushrooms in salads. He used real wagyu in his burgers before well-marbled Japanese beef became all the rage. In Japan, he trained with Hiroyuki Sakai, an innovator who mixed French and Japanese cuisine and who became known on Iron chief. When Yoshi Katsumura arrived in the United States, he worked at Francais under the direction of legendary Chicago chef Jean Banchet. Yoshi’s Cafe was also a source of inspiration as it paved the way for other Asian restaurants in Chicago. Takashi Yagihashi (Slurping Turtle, Takashi) was one of Yoshi Katsumura’s proteges.

Contacted by text on Thursday, Yagihashi reflected on his work with the Katsumura for two years in the late 1980s.

“Yoshi’s Cafe was very high-end French cuisine. I was fortunate enough to work alongside him and learned many fundamental techniques, ”Yagihashi writes. “In the years that followed, I worked with many great chefs in the United States and France, but no one came close to Chef Katsumura. He led a tight ship, but with the warmest heart. I will always be grateful to Chef Katsumura and Nobuko-san.

In many ways, Yoshi’s represented a Japanese restaurant from a bygone era, with a familiar and understated decor that attempted to introduce non-Japanese people to a different culture and cuisine. These are characteristics shared by other restaurants, including Itto Sushi, a 34-year-old Lincoln Park mainstay that closed in 2016. After World War II, the neighborhood had become an unofficial Japantown for Chicago with hundreds. of companies operating nearby.

Nobuko Katsumura says it has been a frantic sprint to the finish line since her husband died in 2015. They have braved the worst of the pandemic. She bought a cover for the patio and a heater. They were counting on take-out and delivery. It would have been easier to throw in the towel sooner, but Nobuko Katsumura was determined. Thinking back, she says her husband may have opposed it.

“When he passed away six years ago, he told me ‘I don’t want you to work hard’,” she says. “When the time is right, you’ll find out. “

Yoshi’s Cafe has undergone a few transformations since it opened in 1982. It has gone from fine dining with dishes like pheasant stuffed with foie gras to a more casual vibe in 1993 and has become more of a neighborhood restaurant. The food was more representative of what the chef grew up eating, his wife says. The current chef was familiar with the founder’s recipes and Nobuko Katsumura says this was integral to satisfying the generations of customers who grew up eating out and started bringing their children to restaurants. The restaurant has seen the rise of social networks. No one had a camera phone to post photos on Instagram in the 1980s.

“I like looking at other restaurants and scrolling through Instagram or Facebook,” says Nobuko Katsumura. “You can even see international restaurants.”

Regular service will continue until December 11, but Yoshi’s will be hosting a special farewell party on Sunday December 12. Tickets will go on sale soon via Tock.

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