Jon Yao is finally fulfilling his dream of moving his Taiwanese tasting menu restaurant Kato into a bigger space. Come early 2022, the Kato team will reopen inside San Francisco chef Melissa Perello’s former M.Georgina at Row DTLA in the Arts District, which announced last night that it would not be reopening.
Perello, who also owns Frances and Octavia, never really had the chance to develop M.Georgina, with just four months of operation under her belt before the pandemic halted indoor dining. M.Georgina’s closure will allow Kato to take over the location. “It’s difficult to walk away from a restaurant that was open for only four months. However, we do not see a viable path forward for M.Georgina post-COVID,” Perello said in a statement. After thanking staff and guests, Perello said, “We’re grateful for the opportunity to pass the torch of this beautiful restaurant to the very capable hands of Jon Yao, Ryan Bailey, Nikki Reginaldo, and the Kato team.”
With a move into an already operational restaurant space, Kato’s last day in West LA will be on November 20; the team will take a few months to rest during the holiday season, then ramp up for a January or February 2022 opening. The move to Downtown has long been in the works for Yao and his partners, Nikki Reginaldo and Ryan Bailey, who together have created a new parent company called Like Water Hospitality. The new group’s mission will be to turn Kato (and hopefully other restaurants to come) into one of the country’s top fine-dining institutions, one that garners attention from the World’s 50 Best and earns two or even three Michelin stars.
Taking into consideration what Yao has done with Kato, there’s probably never been a more unlikely fine dining success story in LA. Yao first opened in a nearly hidden strip mall slot back in 2016, originally billed as a Japanese tasting menu that was just $49 a person. Over the years, he began leaning more into his Taiwanese and San Gabriel Valley roots, serving seemingly simple but thoughtful raw and cooked seafood, as well as luxurious takes on home-cooked dishes like the wagyu beef rice bowl. Since then, Kato has garnered virtually every acclaim a restaurant could want, from a top spot on LA Times’s 101 Restaurant List to a coveted Michelin star to being a perennial Eater essential 38 restaurant. Yao was awarded Food and Wine Best New Chef in 2018, and his Eater video on Youtube has garnered more than 13 million views. That kind of recognition — especially the Michelin star — saved the restaurant, says Yao.
Yao had always planned to move Kato to a location that would better accommodate his ambitions — a larger, more upscale space to match the intricate and beautifully plated food. Another desired improvement: Kato’s current strip mall spot has never allowed for full alcohol service, given the lack of space and permit requirements. The pandemic strained operations further, with Yao initially doing gorgeous jewelry-box sashimi bentos and then opening with a tiny alfresco area in the parking lot. Still, the restaurant pressed on serving a full $150 per person tasting menu (with more for supplements), retaining its Michelin star last month.
Now, with the former M.Georgina space, there’s plenty of room as well as proximity to San Gabriel Valley.
“We wanted to be closer to SGV, where a lot of our friends and family were coming from. Right now 30 to 40 percent of people come from SGV driving two or three hours,” says Reginaldo, who also grew up in San Gabriel Valley and remains the enthusiastic personality that touches every table during service. “A lot of people that come here are young Asian Americans who are thankful for the representation, saying it’s a nostalgic experience, that the food reminds them of home. We end up having conversations, then we start texting. We get lunch, we get boba. We have that sort of intimacy that I personally really like,” she says. Yao acknowledges Reginaldo is essential to Kato’s success: “It’s like a mom and pop. We didn’t hit another level until Nikki came on, and people came to identify Kato with her.”
Bailey, the third pillar of the Kato partnership, came on board three years ago with wine and operational experience at places like NoMad in NYC and LA, as well as Michelin-starred The Kitchen in Sacramento. He brings business acumen and organizational structure to Kato, a complement to Yao and Reginaldo’s more hands-on food and drink backgrounds. Prior to Kato, Yao staged at Michelin-starred Benu and Coi, working the line at the latter for eight months, but didn’t otherwise gain senior-level chef experience. Reginaldo also didn’t work at upscale restaurants before Kato, though she did project management at a brewery and earned a hospitality degree. But Bailey joined the team believing in Kato’s talent and mission. “With Jon, you have one of the better chefs in LA that’s putting Taiwanese food on the map globally,” he says.
Bailey thinks that with a new space, Kato can accomplish both critical and financial success. “I feel very secure about the business model,” he says, remarking that he’s okay with doing the less interesting but no less important work of HR, accounting, and other corporate governance that makes a restaurant viable. The trio rounds out their partnership with a sense of ambition, friendliness, and capability that a fine dining restaurant needs: Yao as the culinary mind, Reginaldo the warm, welcoming heart, and Bailey the fine-dining veteran who brings structure (as well as wine knowledge).
Yao is enthusiastic about the new opportunities the Downtown space will allow for. “It’s a huge plus to have a Michelin-starred chef design the kitchen,” says Yao. As for the food, the kitchen has a wood-fired hearth that will add to Yao’s cooking arsenal. There’s a separate area to focus on pastry. A full cocktail bar and wine menu that’s up to par with Kato’s food. Though there’s a lot more room, Kato will still serve a modest number of diners every night, between 65 to 80, which isn’t too many more than its current volume, to allow for a more theatrical experience like tableside preparations that befit a fancy meal.
While the loss of M.Georgina is certainly a bummer for Perello’s fans, the addition of Kato should continue to introduce Yao and his Asian-American cooking to a broader audience. “I feel like Kato is on the brink of becoming a French Laundry, a Meadowood — an iconic pillar for LA,” says Bailey. Opening just a few steps from the two-Michelin-starred Hayato by Brandon Go is another plus for Row DTLA, which sees plenty of foot traffic on weekends at Smorgasburg but isn’t necessarily a weeknight dining destination. The move does leave a gaping hole in West LA, though Yao says the strip mall location will eventually turn into something else that will serve their Westside fans. But that won’t happen until Kato in Downtown is firmly reestablished as one of LA’s most special restaurants.