Story and slideshow by RICH FAHEY
View a slideshow of Kyoto Japanese Restaurant
Japanese paintings featuring koi fish, birch trees and buildings hang on the walls. A vase of fresh lilies sits on each table, illuminated by a paper lantern hanging overhead. Diners at a table to the left are just out of view thanks to a thin paper wall, allowing light to pass through. To the right, a family of five sits cross-legged with their shoes off. The place is Kyoto Japanese Restaurant.
From the cuisine and décor to the staff, Kyoto Japanese Restaurant is an authentic Japanese eating experience in Salt Lake City.
Founded on Aug. 16, 1984, by Osamu Tada and his wife Yoshiko, Kyoto has developed a large customer base of locals and out-of-state visitors alike. The restaurant is popular among members of both the Asian and white communities.
“We get a lot of customers from around the neighborhood, so we see a lot of the same people eat here often,” Yoshiko Tada said.
Located at 1080 E. 1300 South, Kyoto is easily accessible for visitors as well. The restaurant sees a lot of customers who come for conventions, such as the Outdoor Retailer Market held biannually in August and January. In the winter, snow sports enthusiasts who are on vacation frequent the restaurant.
“When people visit on one vacation, they always come back the next time,” Tada said.
Kyoto has both a lunch and dinner menu and a wide variety of dishes. It also serves Japanese beer such as Sapporo, and hot or cold sake. While the establishment does serve teriyaki chicken, tempura, sashimi and gyoza, it is known mainly for its sushi.
“We serve more traditional sushi than most places in the city,” Tada said.
Three different chefs, all of whom were trained in northern Japan, make the sushi rolls. It serves more traditional sushi so beginners are not as likely to eat at Kyoto, Tada said. One specialty roll that is a common choice for the experienced sushi eater is the Red Dragon roll.
Charles S., an online restaurant reviewer on Yelp, wrote, “My daughter ordered it and it was phenomenal! Best roll I’ve ever tasted … anywhere!”
Another dish served at Kyoto that is difficult to find anywhere else is Dobin Mushi. Made from the very rare pine mushroom, Dobin Mushi is a soup that also includes chicken and vegetables. What makes it special is the rarity of the mushroom and how long it takes to make. Each bowl of soup is heated and served individually in a small clay pot. The lid of the pot doubles as a cup to sip the soup from, similar to tea.
“Japanese people very much appreciate it,” Tada said.
The décor contributes to the authentic feel of Kyoto. The waiting area decorations are replaced every few months to accompany the changing of the seasons. Currently, pumpkins, leaves, an autumn bouquet and paintings representing fall give the small room a festive feeling.
“In Japan it is very important for people to feel the seasons,” Tada said.
Most of the paintings, some of which are extremely rare, are imported from Kyoto, Japan. Others were created by local artists. Kyoto is also home to a variety of beautiful furniture from Japan. In the front of the restaurant is a chest of drawers made of weathered wood. Crafted metal handles and designs give the drawers a worn look. On top sits a well-manicured bonsai tree. At the back of the restaurant in one of the high-occupancy booths is a similarly designed hutch, displaying different Japanese plates and sculptures, all imported from Kyoto.
The seating in the restaurant offers an authentic Japanese experience as well. While Kyoto has standard tables and chairs, it also offers traditional low tables where customers can sit on pillows and take their shoes off, which is customary in Japan.
Adding to the authentic atmosphere is the service. During dinner hours the waitresses, all of whom are Asian, wear kimonos. A kimono is a long robe traditionally worn in Japan that usually depicts a floral design.
“It is unique for Salt Lake City. I can’t think of another restaurant where they wear kimonos,” Tada said.
The staff at the restaurant is helpful and courteous. Some of the waitresses have been working there since it opened more than 26 years ago.
“We are just like a family,” Tada said.
Heather Scaglione, 23, a University of Utah alumna and sushi lover, said, “It’s not just the food that keeps me going back. Every time I’ve gone to Kyoto I’ve had a good experience.”