Growth in sushi bars, hibachi grills reflects changing tastes
Japanese restaurants slated to open highlight a trend that area restaurateurs say has been growing in recent years.
The increasing popularity of Japanese food -- from neighborhood sushi bars to elaborate hibachi grills with knife-twirling chefs -- has become a key part of the region's culinary transformation, said John Graf, vice president of the Priory Hospitality Group and Western Chapter representative for the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association.
"It seems like it's a trend that's picked up some steam in the last three or four years," Graf said. It's a marked change from his formative years in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and '80s, when "there were a couple of kinds of restaurants, and they all served steak."
Saga Hibachi Steakhouse & Sushi Bar opened its fifth restaurant in the region Feb. 21 at South Hills Village. Workers are preparing a space at The Galleria in Mt. Lebanon for Dragon Fire Japanese Steakhouse, Sushi Bar and Robatayaki. Nakama's decision to expand beyond its South Side location and open a restaurant in the North Side's blighted Garden Theater block is expected to spark redevelopment.
Nakama's South Side restaurant "is busy all day and all night. ... If they're able to replicate that (on the North Side), they'll make a gagillion dollars," said Bill Fuller, corporate chef of the Big Burrito chain of restaurants. The Big Burrito group includes Umi Japanese Restaurant and Soba, a pan-Asian restaurant, in Shadyside. "Umi has continued to grow in popularity. We're on track now to have our best year ever there."
Changing demographics drive demand for restaurants that offer more than the European staples of Pittsburgh's industrial past, Fuller said. High-tech jobs from university spinoffs and multinational companies such as Google attracted young professionals from around the world, he said.
"We've seen continued growth in the number of people from places like the Bay Area, New York, Miami. They're coming for the tech jobs, and they're used to cosmopolitan dining," Fuller said.
"I believe we're at a point where there's an increase in disposable income. Part of that is the exurbs, where we have tons of money pouring in due to the Marcellus shale gas explosion, and international wealth growth due to high-tech industries," he said.
Exurbs, well-off areas just beyond the suburbs, have been fertile ground for Japanese restaurants like Benichopsticks Chinese & Japanese Restaurant in McMurray, Washington County.
"We're doing pretty good," said Phillip Wang, the restaurant's owner. It's been open for eight years, and business growth has been driven by word of mouth, he said. "The customer tells his friends and family, and (it grows) like that."
Young families and business groups looking for something extra in their dining experience increasingly turn to hibachi-style restaurants, where diners ring a flat-top grill at which a chef puts on an elaborate cooking display, said David Liu, a business consultant working with Saga and several other Asian restaurants in the area.
"They want to have some entertainment rather than just sit there waiting for the food to come to your table," Liu said.
These restaurants offer another advantage, he said. Health-conscious diners can see everything that's going into their meal because it's prepared right in front of them, Liu said.
"Ten years ago, people would say, 'How can you eat raw fish?'" Liu said. Now the simplicity of a sushi dish appeals to people looking for whole, unprocessed food, he said.
Japanese cuisine fits well with these changed eating habits, Fuller said.
"It's lot of rice and vegetables and a little bit of protein," he said.
But the region's recent embrace of Japanese food has not included all of that country's fare, Graf said.
"You don't see other types of Japanese restaurants," Graf said. "There are a lot of noodle houses in Japan, and also a lot of places that are specializing in eel. You're not really seeing that type of Japanese cuisine."Additional Information:
Western Pennsylvania is home to dozens of Japanese restaurants. Here's where to find the ones appearing in this story:
Nakama -- 1611 East Carson St., South Side
Umi Japanese Restaurant -- 5847 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside
Saga Hibachi Steakhouse & Sushi Bar -- 5 locations, including Route 19 in Cranberry and South Hills Village Mall in Bethel Park
Dragon Fire Japanese Steakhouse, Sushi Bar and Robatayaki (under construction) -- The Galleria in Mt. Lebanon
Benichopsticks Chinese & Japanese Restaurant -- 1025 Waterdam Plaza Dr., McMurray
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- FBI searches for suspect in Homestead bank robbery
- Secretary enters conspiracy plea for helping boss hide millions from IRS
- Tomlin: Steelers as healthy as can be expected at this point in season
- Hempfield man fights off intruders
- Colter, Mason lead Duquesne past Milwaukee in OT
- New North Shore parking garage plan moves forward
- McIntyre students hope Buddy Bench is beneficial to all
- Rookie linebacker Chickillo adjusting to role with Steelers
- Starkey: Farewell to NHL fighting
- Steelers not giving up on wresting AFC North from Bengals
- Boston couple deliver fresh, seasonal cuisine at Hampton’s Hartwood Restaurant