In the six years since her husband passed away, Nobuko Katsumura has worked harder than ever to keep their pioneering Lakeview restaurant, Yoshi’s Cafe, thriving in a sea of adversity. Even more recently through the pandemic, Katsumura has worked tirelessly ensuring generations of loyal customers could enjoy the restaurant’s unique blend of Japanese and French cuisine.
But after a 39-year run in Lakeview, Yoshi’s Cafe’s end is here. Katsumura on Thursday notified her staff that the restaurant will close on Sunday, December 12. She’s reached a deal to sell the restaurant space on the southeast corner of Halsted and Aldine. Katsumura says the buyer is local and the purchase should be positive for the community. She wouldn’t reveal the buyer’s plans but did say another restaurant isn’t in the works. The deal happened quickly.
“I’ve been trying to keep up the restaurant,” says Katsumura, who is 69. “We have been doing pretty good. But it’s about time for me to go on to the next chapter.”
Katsumura says she’s excited to spend more time with her grandchildren and children, (daughter Mari was the driving force and chef at Michelin-starred Yugen in West Loop; son Ken has stepped in as chef and even cooked up a fancy weekend barbecue special during the pandemic). But mother admits that the future and the great unknown is a bit scary. For the past four decades she’s dedicated herself to the restaurant, working alongside her husband, chef Yoshi Katsumura.
In 2014, the city added “Honorary Yoshi Katsumura Way” underneath the street sign in front of the restaurant. They built something special for customers and staff. While the restaurant industry suffers through a labor shortage, Yoshi’s Cafe hasn’t had problems retaining workers. Among the workers notified on Thursday were employees who have spent more than two decades working for the Katsumuras. They’re a real family at Yoshi’s, Katsumura says. Some of her workers call her “Mom.” They called Yoshi “Dad.” While breaking the news to those longtime workers was sad, Noboko Katsumura says they understood that it was time. There were tears shed.
Yoshi and Nobuko Katsumura emigrated from Japan to America in the ’70s. Chef Katsumura trained in cooking French and Japanese food and used ingredients many Chicagoans had never seen before. His wife talks about her husband daring to use enoki mushrooms in salads. He used genuine wagyu in his burgers before the well-marbled Japanese beef became trendy. In Japan, he trained under Hiroyuki Sakai, an innovator who melded French and Japanese cuisine and who gained fame on Iron Chef. When Yoshi Katsumura arrived in the U.S. he worked at Le Francais under legendary Chicago chef Jean Banchet. Yoshi’s Cafe was also inspiring as it paved the way for other Asian restaurants in Chicago. Takashi Yagihashi (Slurping Turtle, Takashi) was among Yoshi Katsumura’s proteges.
When reached by text on Thursday, Yagihashi reflected on working with the Katsumuras for two years in the late ’80s.
“Yoshi’s Cafe was very high-end French cuisine. I was lucky enough to work side by side with him, and learned many fundamental techniques,” Yagihashi texts. “In the years following, I worked with many great chefs in the U.S. and France, but no one came close to chef Katsumura. He ran a tight ship, but with the warmest heart. I will always be thankful to chef Katsumura and Nobuko-san.”
In many ways, Yoshi’s represented a Japanese restaurant of a bygone era, one with a familiar and understated decor that was trying to introduce non-Japanese to a different culture and cuisine. These are characteristics shared by other restaurants including Itto Sushi, a 34-year-old Lincoln Park stalwart that closed in 2016. Post World War II, the area had become an unofficial Japantown for Chicago with hundreds of businesses operating nearby.
Nobuko Katsumura says it’s been a frantic sprint to the finish line since her husband died in 2015. Yoshi’s braved the worst of the pandemic. She bought a cover for the patio and a heater. They relied on carryout and delivery. It would have been easier to throw in the towel earlier, but Nobuko Katsumura was determined. While reflecting, she says her husband may have objected.
“When he passed away six years ago, he told me ‘I don’t want you to work hard,’” she says. “‘Whenever it’s the time, you will know.’”
Yoshi’s Cafe has seen a few transformations since opening in 1982. It went from fine dining with dishes like pheasant stuffed with foie gras to a more casual vibe in 1993 and becoming more of a neighborhood restaurant. The food was more representative of what the chef grew up eating, his wife says. The current chef knew the founder’s recipes and Nobuko Katsumura says that was integral in satisfying the generations of customers who grew up eating at the restaurant and began bringing their children to the restaurant. The restaurant has seen the rise of social media. No one had camera phones posting photos to instagram in the ’80s.
“I enjoy looking at other restaurants and scrolling Instagram or Facebook,” Nobuko Katsumura says. “You can even see international restaurants.”
Regular service will continue through December 11, but Yoshi’s will host a special farewell party on Sunday, December 12. Tickets will soon go on sale via Tock.