For four years, chef Marc Zimmerman’s Michelin Guide-listed Gozu restaurant has been a sumptuous destination for wagyu steak served just about any way you can imagine. But as of today, September 15, diners can get a taste of the chef’s skill in cooking over live fire at his new — and notably more casual — restaurant and bar Yokai. “The idea with this is it’s our version of, basically, a bar and grill with a little bit more thought put into each area,” Zimmerman says.
Zimmerman first announced plans for the Japanese-inspired listening bar in summer 2022, sharing that he’d be taking over the former Salt House Restaurant space at 545 Mission Street, about four blocks from Gozu. Yokai is the latest in a string of Japanese-style listening bars to open in the Bay Area, joining Harlan Records, also in downtown San Francisco, and Bar Shiru in Oakland, which opened in 2019.
The chef says the space inspired the concept for Yokai. The building where the restaurant resides is the first permanent structure built on Mission Street following the 1906 earthquake and retains historic design details including cold-riveted steel columns that predate the Golden Gate Bridge and high ceilings with wooden beams. He worked with architect Andrea Lendardin Madden, owner of the ALM Project, and business partner Ben Jorgensen on the project, both of whom also helped bring Gozu into existence in 2019. The chef hunted down a set of vintage 1970s-era JBL Pro Series studio speakers for the sound system, which will spin primarily jazz — though “not your dad’s jazz,” the chef notes, namechecking artists including Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
As for the food, Zimmerman says he and chef de cuisine Jessie Lugo take the same detail-oriented approach that’s made Gozu one of the city’s top destinations for steak lovers but apply it to a more approachable menu. “I think we’re doing the same thing that we always do and trying to have our finger on the pulse of what people are looking for,” he says, namely a la carte options and smaller, sharable plates. The heart of the menu is a selection of grilled skewers. In the kitchen, the chef installed a bevy of different grills to play around with including a Spanish parilla where they’ll cook over wood (Zimmerman is thinking red oak and mesquite) or charcoal; a charcoal-fired oven they’ll use for roasting fish and bigger cuts of meat; two yakitori boxes that’ll be fueled by binchotan charcoal; and a double-stacked rotation combination oven.
They’ll pair the various grill options with the ingredients in hand based on the flavors they’re aiming to create. The menu includes sticks piled with Wolfe Ranch quail, Spanish octopus, Sonoma duck, and scallops; the chef says they’ll also have both skewers, sides, and entrees that feature vegetables for those who avoid animal proteins. Larger format dishes include the Yokai burger, which can be ordered with or without the addition of wasabi Thousand Island and local sea urchin; barbecued oxtail; and a 20-ounce dry-aged bone-in ribeye.
Beverage director Jordan Abraham has a lineup of Japanese and American spirits stocked behind the bar, which is focusing “loosely” on highballs, Zimmerman says. They’re building out signature drinks that play on the format of spirit-plus-ice-plus-something-carbonated and will work on a line of house infusions to round things out.
Zimmerman says he’s hopeful this more casual restaurant — one that doesn’t require diners to commit to a two or three-hour meal at the set price of $225 — will appeal to a dining public that seems hungry for quality food in a more relaxed environment. He knows downtown San Francisco might seem like a risky place to invest in a new business, but he’s hopeful Yokai will become a go-to spot for a burger and cocktail after work, happy hour, date nights, and dinners with clients. “We’re here,” Zimmerman says of downtown, “and we’re committed to it long-term.”
Unlike at Gozu, where refining dishes before they get added to the menu can take weeks of R+D, Zimmerman also says he’s excited to have a new creative outlet via Yokai’s more nimble menu. “There's a certain thing that’s fantastically fun about getting an email from your local fisherman saying, ‘Hey, I've got local halibut,’ and saying, ‘OK, let's do halibut,’” he says.
Yokai (545 Mission Street, San Francisco) opens on Friday, September 15, and will serve food and drinks Tuesday through Saturday from 3 to 9 p.m. Walk-ins are accepted, though reservations are recommended and can be made via Tock.