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Growth in sushi bars, hibachi grills reflects changing tastes

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Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012

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:

Japanese restaurants

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

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