Long, long ago in 2018, Chicago restaurateur Susan Thompson replaced her decade-old vegetarian staple Mana Food Bar in Wicker Park with Yokocho, a bar and restaurant inspired by the old-school alleyways of Japanese cities, crowded with pubs and snack shops. It debuted to immense local buzz and by April 2019 was named one of the city’s best new restaurants of the year by Chicago magazine.
The same week that it received the media accolade, however, Yokocho abruptly shut its doors, telling patrons only that the team planned to relocate from the space where Wazwan currently resides. Four years later, that plan has, at last, come to fruition as Thompson and her team from sister spot Sushi Dokku relaunched Yokocho in mid-June in Fulton Market on the ground floor of a 17-story building at 167 N. Green Street.
Thompson is well-acquainted with Japanese dining in Chicago via her numerous restaurants including shuttered spot Sushi Wabi. In Wicker Park, Thompson opened Anaba Handroll Bar as a sibling to Yokocho. Thompson also tried the concept inside DMK’s Hayden Hall, a food hall that opened in January 2020, but never sustained momentum and closed during the pandemic. The food hall experience was challenging but Thompson hasn’t soured on them 100 percent as she opened a post of her West Loop flagship, Sushi Dokku, inside Urbanspace Washington.
Those experiences helped Thompson form Yokocho’s menu which is divided into three sections: a 10-course omakase-style meal; “mittsu,” or sets of three small plates served simultaneously; and temaki sushi, or hand rolls, available both in traditional styles and as creative interpretations with unusual ingredients like wagyu or white anchovy.
After traveling to Japan and immersing itself in the formal and highly ritualized genre of omakase, Yokocho’s team has implemented a version that weaves in tradition — a chef selects each course and assembles the dishes in front of patrons — but attends to Western preferences by allowing some customer input on preferences in a friendly space. There’s a drink menu with cocktails like the Ume Smash (Akashi White Oak whisky, spicy Akashi ume whisky, lemon) and Toki highballs, as well as a lineup of sakes, draft Asahi beer, and a handful of European and Californian wines.
The space is at 167 N. Green, a building erected in 2021 that has garnered buzz. There’s already a massive Foxtrot Market and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises opened the Oakville Grille & Cellar inside earlier this year. Yokocho happens to be down the street from Momotaro, Boka Restaurant Group’s spacious Japanese restaurant. Yokocho takes a different approach, although sharing the moody and low-lit ambiance. The 1,000-square-foot space seats 30, primarily along a U-shaped bar flanked by a row of illuminated box signs — a nod to traditional yokocho aesthetics. Thompson says she tried to straddle the line between the country’s famously minimalist design style and her desire to create a comfortable, unpretentious space that invites diners to linger.
“Everything comes back to comfort and a warm, approachable atmosphere,” Thompson says. “[Traditional omakase] can be a little bit of a sterile environment and we don’t want people to feel that way here. We want to see people four times a month, not just on their birthday.”
Later this month, Yokocho will launch a lunch menu that includes familiar hits like donburi, (rice bowls) in addition to Japanese sandwiches on crustless milk bread with fillings like matcha cream with strawberries, spicy deviled egg, and chicken katsu. If all goes well, a fancy wagyu sando might make its way onto the lineup at dinner.
Despite the time lag between the previous and current iterations of Yokocho, not to mention an intervening pandemic, Thompson says her dedication to hospitality remains strong as ever. Even when reduced to takeout-only operations at Sushi Dokku by public health mitigations, she says the business thrived, drawing long lines of patrons waiting to pick up their food. That experience reaffirmed her commitment to the work. “I never skipped a beat,” she says. “I never gave up on this career choice.”
Yokocho, 167 N. Green Street, Open 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 5:30 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.