Richard Newton is convinced Birmingham’s culinary revolution is ready for his restaurant idea.
Newton plans to take ground-floor space in the Ideal Building across 19th Street from Pizitz and turn it into a little slice of Japan.
Kyoto Yakitori will be the restaurant, a name that speaks to the place and the food.
“Kyoto is an ancient capital of Japan and kind of a second home for me over the past several decades, so that’s a personal dedication from me,” Newton said. “Yakitori is the cuisine. We’re talking about grilled meat and vegetables and all manner of combinations thereof.”
The attorney-turned-restaurateur knows grilled meat and vegetables on a stick is not a foreign concept in this state, but the Japanese take on it elevates it to something more.
“Between the United States in a general sense and the city of Birmingham, the Birmingham metro area, people are ready, they’re eager to try new things,” Newton said. “What’s unique about Yakitori in that context is we have the familiarity with grilled meats and vegetables. We’re in Alabama, so we’re already there with that. There is little to no learning curve on that. But we’re also bringing in authentic flavors from Japan so people can go the simple route, they can go … the exotic route or anything in between.”
From sushi to hibachi to Japanese steakhouses, Japanese cuisine has become a part of the U.S. mix. Yakitori is not as prevalent.
“It hasn’t permeated the U.S. culture like, say, sushi has or other Japanese cuisines, so there’s an opportunity here, there’s a niche here,” Newton said. “Plus, it’s so darn good.”
Unlike many Japanese restaurants in the U.S. that offer “Americanized” versions of the cuisine and atmosphere, Newton promises a level of authenticity that will be noticeable once you walk in the door.
Actually, it will happen as you approach the door. Newton wanted a sliding door like Japanese restaurants use as the main entrance, but building codes don’t allow for that. Instead, he’s giving it the appearance of one of those doors without the exact functionality.
It’s that level of detail Newton has been focusing on as he plans Kyoto Yakitori.
“When you walk into there, you’re walking into Japan,” he said. “That’s what we want our guests to experience.”
Once inside, there will be several small tables that can be put together for larger groups. Like in Japan, yakitori is meant to be experienced in small plates (think tapas) for as short or as long of a night of eating and drinking as customers would like.
Beer, wine and sake will be on the menu. Meats will include beef, pork and chicken.
What started out as street food in Japan (and still is throughout the country), yakitori has been broadened to everything from fast food to fine dining in that country. Yakitori restaurants are places where friends and family like to gather and enjoy a night out.
Newton has been testing his concept since last summer with pop-up restaurants at breweries and private events. He’s visited Japan on multiple occasions to explore yakitori in-depth and come up with recipes for skewers and sauces.
Kyoto Yakitori will use electric grills and some other modern touches but wants to adhere to tradition as much as possible.
David Fleming, CEO of REV Birmingham, agrees with Newton that Birmingham is open to trying a variety of new cuisines.
“Downtown Birmingham has emerged as the showcase for diverse cuisine from around the world,” Fleming said. “Yakitori will bring even more authenticity to this food culture developing in downtown.”
Newton said the interior build-out of the space in the historic Ideal building will begin soon and diners could be eating there later this year. Follow the progress on Facebook.
“We’re hopefully starting the build-out within the next month and then we would like to open by the fall,” Newton said. “That’s the plan, at least.”
Diverse food offerings are important to Birmingham not only from a dining standpoint, but there is a larger impact.
“For a city to compete for talent and business in the modern economy it must offer the kinds of amenities and quality of life desired by that talent and business,” Fleming said. “The food culture in Birmingham is one of our economic assets.”
Newton looks forward to being part of that diversity, but most important to him is the opportunity to give people a Japanese experience without having to leave the Magic City.
“I love the food. I love the cuisine. I love the culture. I love the people,” he said. “I just wanted to bring that and share it with Alabama starting here in Birmingham.”