Bay Area yakitori connoisseurs were devastated when Tommy Cleary closed Hina Yakitori, his popular Japanese chicken-skewer restaurant in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, in May of 2017. Good news, then, for them: Hina’s long-awaited San Francisco reboot, on Divisadero Street, softly opened last week after a series of delays.
The new restaurant is a collaboration between Cleary and his two partners in the venture, Tan Truong and Geoffrey Lee of Ju-Ni, the Michelin-starred sushi spot around the corner. It’s a sleek, cozy yakitori restaurant with only 12 counter seats, which means every diner has a front-row ticket to see the chefs working their custom-designed Japanese binchotan charcoal grill. And while there are a handful of other restaurants in San Francisco specializing in the chicken skewers known as yakitori, this new incarnation of Hina might be the only restaurant in the United States that serves an “omakase”-style yakitori tasting menu exclusively, with no a la carte option: $110 for 16 courses, or half of a pasture-raised chicken broken down into meticulously butchered and precisely charcoal-grilled parts.
Cleary cut his yakitori teeth with stints at the original Piedmont Avenue location of B-Dama and Berkeley’s Ippuku and, perhaps most notably, a year-long apprenticeship at Tokyo’s Tori+Salon. But the chef was forced to close the original Hina, which opened in April of 2016, when it became too successful for its own good. Because the dining room was relatively large, Cleary says he was inundated with more customers than his two-person kitchen team could handle. He started to dream of a smaller, more intimate location. By this time the Ju-Ni partners already held the lease at the former Stelladoro Pizza space on Divisadero. After Truong and Lee visited the old Hina and fell in love with Cleary’s food, the rest was history — though, as these things often go, Hina’s rebirth was postponed for more than a year due to an extensive, city-mandated building retrofit for seismic safety.
The biggest change at Hina 2.0 is Cleary’s shift to an “omakase” format — something rarely seen at yakitori restaurants in the US. One of the main benefits of the tasting menu format, Cleary explains, is that it allows him to use whole chickens without waste. With an a la carte menu, a customer might put in five orders of their favorite skewer — say, the thigh oyster — and, as a result, the restaurant might sell out of those, but end up stuck with twenty extra pieces of a less popular cut. Cleary believes the tasting menu also makes for a more enjoyable dining experience, since the various cuts of the chicken — the wing, the breast, the center-cut thigh — are sequenced out so that each skewer has a completely different taste and texture from the one before it. A handful of non-chicken dishes and non-grilled items are interspersed to keep things interesting and round out the meal.
Of course, one of the consequences of this shift is that the restaurant’s price point has jumped significantly since its Oakland days, when an a la carte meal might set you back $40 or $50. The new $110 price tag pushes the restaurant into special-occasion territory for a majority of diners. Cleary, for his part, says he wouldn’t have minded a more affordable approach, but that for this particular restaurant he just wanted to use the very highest-quality products he could get his hands on — from the pasture-raised chickens he sources from Pasturebird, in Southern California, to top-of-the-line Wakayama Kishu binchotan (white oak charcoal) he ships in from Japan.
Within the world of yakitori, Cleary says he has great respect for the traditionalists who serve their chicken skewers with just a little bit of salt or a brush of tare. A number of the skewers at Hina take that restrained approach. On the whole, though, the chef identifies with a new wave of yakitori restaurants in Japan, like Ranjatai in Tokyo’s Jinbocho neighborhood, which are pushing the envelope with more modern preparations. They might, as Cleary does, pair ikura with crispy chicken skin, or top a deboned chicken wing with sansho pepper and fresh wasabi.
“I just feel like it’s a little bit more refined and forward-thinking,” Cleary says of his new restaurant. The word hina, he notes, means “baby bird” — a name that implies room for growth. “It’s a bigger bird now.”
Meanwhile, Hina’s beverage program — curated by Justin Chin, also the beverage director at Ju-Ni — is somewhat unusual for a yakitori restaurant. Chin places a heavier emphasis on wine than beer or sake (which are both also available). Eventually, the restaurant will add an optional beverage pairing, which will include both wine and sake.
Hina Yakitori is now open Tuesday to Saturday with seatings from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. (the start of the last seating).