A new era begins at Yoshi’s

Photograph of opening night at Yoshi's on November 27, 2007, by Mina Pahlevan

Photograph of opening night at Yoshi’s on November 27, 2007, by Mina Pahlevan

By Chris Barnett

AFTER A DIZZYING seven year roller-coaster ride — from its opening as the hot new jazz club on the West Coast to a plunge into bankruptcy — Yoshi’s on Fillmore was taken over by new owners July 1 and is tuning up for its next gig.

Yoshi’s San Francisco, launched at the end of 2007 as the offspring of 42-year-old Yoshi’s in Oakland, will no longer be a jazz club, despite its heritage and its locale in what was once the fabled Harlem of the West. In fact, it hasn’t been a jazz club for several years, and the music promises to get still more eclectic under new management.

The big question is what the new Yoshi’s is going to look like, sound like and taste like. It’s hard to say just yet because the take-over management team, headed by longtime minority owner and successful urban developer Michael E. Johnson — who developed the Fillmore Heritage Center housing Yoshi’s, 1300 on Fillmore and 80 condominiums above — took control suddenly last month without a fully developed business plan. Even as the curtain rises this month, the new Yoshi’s, including its new name, is a work in progress.

This much is known: The business known as Yoshi’s San Francisco — which includes the 420-seat club and the 370-seat Japanese restaurant and lounge — was sold by an investment consortium headed by Yoshie Akiba and Kaz Kajimura to the Fillmore Live Entertainment Group, where Johnson is the managing director. No one including Johnson is saying what Fillmore Live paid, if anything. The club complex, separate from the building Johnson developed and controls, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2012. The sale does not affect the mothership Yoshi’s in Jack London Square.

As part of the deal, the Yoshi’s name will remain on the San Francisco club for the next 90 to 120 days until the new owners get their act — and their new strategy — together. Reliable sources say Kajimura, who has been the hands-on manager of the venture, and Johnson are not speaking and there has been animosity between them for some time. Kajimura refused to discuss the transfer of the club.

While he won’t commit to a concept, Michael Johnson, who went to the same high school as Bill Cosby — Central High in Philly — knows what he doesn’t want. “We’re not going to be a jazz club,” he says. “Our focus will be on all kinds of music. And we’re not going to be aiming at any one audience. Our age demographics are 18 to 80 — both in music and food.”

In the restaurant, Johnson said Japanese cuisine is definitely on its way out. “Not everyone wants sushi,” he offers. Then he adds: “Nopa — now that’s the kind of restaurant we would want,” referring to the urban rustic eatery on Divisadero run by Laurence Jossel, formerly of Fillmore’s Chez Nous, which has been packed since the day it opened.

Johnson sees the bar becoming more of a neighborhood saloon — “absolutely,” he says — and he has hired Reza Esmaili, one of San Francisco’s top bar managers and the former boss of Fillmore’s Long Bar before its makeover as Palmer’s. Esmaili, fresh off a stint at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, will manage not only the bar, but the entire operation.

Johnson says other changes are also in store. “We’re thinking of repositioning the box office, changing the entrance, adding another bar in a strategic location,” he says. Of the upstairs lounge, which comes alive on especially busy nights, he says: “We see that as becoming a VIP area or for private events.”

There is one certainty Johnson is willing to talk about. Peter Williams, the original artistic director of Yoshi’s San Francisco, is returning as the entertainment booker. Williams booked the opening acts when the doors opened, an occasion that local columnist Rochelle Metcalfe proclaimed in print as “Oh happy day in da ’Mo for jazz lovers especially — the Rebirth of the Cool. It’s been a long time coming.”

Williams had worked as artistic director at Yoshi’s in Oakland since 1999 and was booking acts for both clubs when the San Francisco club debuted. He wooed top jazz artists with a seductive siren song: Play Yoshi’s in the East Bay and cross the bridge to Yoshi’s San Francisco for your next gig.

Williams says Yoshi’s San Francisco was never intended to be a clone of the Oakland club. Though promoted as a jazz club, “We were doing not only jazz but R&B, rock, Latin, blues,” he says. Yoshi’s SF caught the free-spending wave of late 2007 and early 2008 when the technology and housing sectors were on fire. But a year later, when the economy was swamped by a series of market meltdowns, Yoshi’s partners had to borrow money from the city Redevelopment Agency, which had already bankrolled its launch with a $4.4 million loan.

SFJazz Center, the nonprofit fueled by the vision of the Fillmore’s own Randall Kline, stole Yoshi’s thunder and many of its loyalists in the last 15 months. Jazz fans have found a new home in SFJazz’s year-old $64 million 750-seat concert hall near the opera and symphony.

The new musical format at the Fillmore club, says Williams, “will be focusing on world music. We’ll still have jazz, but we won’t be a jazz club anymore. We’ll be booking singer-songwriters and working with a lot of local groups. I’m proud to be in a city with so many great clubs.” He adds: “We will find our audience.”

But will the revamped venture find enough diners and drinkers to fill up the hippodrome-sized restaurant and bar? You can squeeze four Nopas into that space. The East Bay restaurant consulting firm Ovation Partners has been retained to advise, but its owners did not return calls to discuss a new recipe for success.
On a street where strong restaurant concepts are packing in the locals and visiting food lovers alike — think State Bird Provisions, Dosa and SPQR, to name a few — a space as big as Yoshi’s presents a special challenge.

“The dining space is just too big. I would chop up the space into two or three different restaurants, each with its own entrance,” says one seasoned operator. “Might do one formal, one informal. Mexican food would be awesome there; we don’t have a good sit-down Mexican restaurant on Fillmore. But you’ve got to make it affordable to drive traffic and attract regulars.”

Research assistance by Veronika Torgashova

Read more: “How the Yoshi’s deal went down