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At Yoshi’s, there’s more than music

The color changes with the mood behind the curvaceous bar at Yoshi’s.

SALOONS | Chris Barnett

Music is only one reason to go to Yoshi’s. There are five or six other “performances” most nights in the sweeping two-story showplace at 1330 Fillmore in the redeveloped jazz district.

On the main floor facing the street is a 160-seat Japanese restaurant that made the Chronicle’s Top 100 list soon after it opened. Next to it is a massive exhibition kitchen with a dozen or so knife-wielding sushi chefs slicing and plating at top speed. Between the restaurant and the jazz club is a long, curved, sit-down bar and a tented alcove with semicircular banquette seating for two, four or as many as you can pack in.

And pack in they do. When the 8 o’clock show empties out around 9:30 and the 10 o’clock show is queuing up, it can be bedlam. “We’re often making 400 drinks,” says Sean McNeal, the smooth and easy bar manager who has eminent credentials for his post: a masters in theology from Cal Berkeley.

Unfortunately, the uninitiated can easily miss the action. Yoshi’s tall front windows have drawn drapes so passersby can’t see the people inside the stylish dining room feasting on fare ranging from flash-roasted hamachi to cowboy T-bones. Plus, the spartan lobby has framed photos of jazz greats and exhibitions such as the current one saluting members of the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, but no indication the double doors on the left are the gateway to highly rated food and creative cocktails.

Kaz Kajimura and Yoshie Akiba, the owners of the original Yoshi’s in Oakland — which has no dedicated bar — have redeemed themselves with their Fillmore locale. They’ve poured plenty into the bar on the main floor and an even swankier lounge on the second level that handles the spillover on busy nights. The backbars, with sexy mood lighting that changes colors, have hundreds of brands of premium liquor — plenty to handle nearly any drink request and allow McNeal and his crew to create new signature libations for the club.

“At Yoshi’s, people expect finely crafted cocktails,” says McNeal. But he likes to keep them simple, without the increasingly common gumbo of high-octane liquors, mixers, fruits and juice. “The world’s best cocktails have no more than three, maybe four ingredients,” he says. “It’s all about the bartender’s delivery and repartee.”

Sean McNeal is the mastermind behind the bar program at Yoshi's.

Allison Bryant, who works in telecommunications in San Francisco, agrees. Greeted with a sincere “Have you been taken care of?” she ordered a Ketel One and soda tall with dash of Angostura bitters. Bryant, sitting solo at the bar waiting for a friend, says she prefers Yoshi’s as a meeting place because she likes “the lighting, the tall upholstered chairs and the bartenders — who are all friendly.” There’s even a garage in the building.

Yoshi’s house cocktails are imaginative and priced from $8 to $11, a bargain on the boulevard considering what’s in the glass. Abraham Simmons, senior counsel in the local U.S. Attorney’s office, favors the classic martini, but the Drop Thelonious caught his eye. A colorful concoction of Ketel One Oranje vodka, Cointreau and fresh orange and lemon juice, it’s served straight up. “Aahh, excellent,” proclaimed Simmons after his first sip. Then he launched into a spirited conversation about favorite spots in Washington, D.C., with bartender Annemarie Roberts, who once worked there.

Yoshi’s libational alchemists salute the jazz legends with their creations. The Blueberi Brubeck is a simple mixture of Stoli Blueberi vodka, Sprite and soda in a highball glass. And Billie’s Holiday is a tart blend of Ketel One Citron, St. Germain’s Elderfleur and freshly squeezed lemon juice in a stemmed glass rimmed with sugar and Campari. Here’s a secret for Scotch lovers: Famous Grouse is in the well for $8. At most bars, that’s a call at around $10 a glass.

Beer drinkers can choose from a half dozen Japanese bottled imports, a few U.S. brands ranging from basic Budweiser to the rare and no doubt exotic craft beer, Moose’s Drool, brewed in Missoula, Montana, and priced at $5 a bottle. Eight other beers are on draught including Blue Moon Garden Wheat Ale and Northern California’s popular Laginitas IPA. Tap beers are all $6 a pint except Guinness, which fetches $8.

Yoshi’s also pours an amazing 24 wines by the glass ($8 to $12) plus an array of sakis, teas and housemade sodas such as cherry limeade and citrus mint for $5.

Yoshi’s sounds like pure paradise for the cocktail set, but it ain’t necessarily so. Russ George, a marine scientist whose life work is saving the oceans, also likes to save money — or at least not to waste it. When he recently ordered a vodka tonic for $8 in the restaurant, the server suggested a double, and he took the bait. When the tab arrived, his basic highball was suddenly $16.

Indeed, the rules of the house can be a little confusing. A bartender acknowledges some seem to assume you have to go to the show before you can come into the bar or the restaurant. Not true. You can eat and drink starting at 5:30 nightly — and if you do, you can reserve seats for the show. Unlike many clubs, there is no two-drink minimum for show-goers. It’s a “one item” minimum and that can come from the bar or the kitchen. However, you have to buy it from a waiter inside the spectacular 450-seat club. It doesn’t count if you buy a drink before the show and take it inside.

And don’t even consider bringing in a flask, as they used to do in the old jazz joints on Fillmore. The scene has gone uptown.