The Friday evening before Kato’s new Downtown Los Angeles location is the most relaxed this room will be, at least for the foreseeable future. Occupying the former M.Georgina space — the restaurant from San Francisco chef Melissa Perello that only operated for a few months before being forced to close due to the pandemic — the corner build-out on the ground floor of a towering industrial building in Downtown LA’s eastern edge seems like a fitting home for Jon Yao’s Michelin-starred establishment. Yao and partners Nikki Reginaldo and Ryan Bailey have been spending the last few months preparing their larger digs, though everyone’s a bit drained mentally from three days of hosting dinners with the Restaurant at the Meadowood, a $500 per person affair that went smoothly despite being the Kato team’s first actual nights of service.
Kato reopens today, February 8, with reservations available two weeks out at a time, and eventually up to a month out. Tables will likely be difficult to obtain, though not impossible. The 48 seat restaurant occupies a room that held well close to 100 before the pandemic, and just eight seats at the relaxed bar. Most of the bones of the dining room are the same, but instead of contrasts between lights and darks and a slew of hanging lamps, Kato’s space feels more restrained and relaxed.
“I want to play jazz music here,” says Yao, who thinks energetic but lyric-less tunes from the likes of John Coltrane or Miles Davis will serve the L-shaped dining room well. Yao would love the ambience to be more low-key, the better for guests to focus on the food and experience. But Kato has never had the chance to occupy such a nice interior, living previously in the somewhat hidden corner of a West LA strip mall, with 20-something seats and a temporary al fresco patio that jutted out into the parking lot. And the introduction of a full wine pairing selection, bottles, and cocktails will likely inject plenty of excitement from eager diners into the big new dining room. Plus, the fully open kitchen will convey a greater connection to the cooks and Yao’s Taiwanese-influenced tasting menu.
No one will deny that Kato’s new digs are a massive upgrade. Westside denizens might lament the longer journey while the restaurant’s most vocal proponents will love the shorter drive from SGV and more eastern places. Reginaldo told Eater that so many of Kato’s fans and ardent supporters see the restaurant as a beacon, a place that could represent Asian American cooking.
But more than anything, Yao is just thankful for the space, the space to think, the space to store ingredients, and space to accommodate his ambitions. He’s keen to share in those aspirations as well, bringing seasoned pastry chef Nina Yoon, assigning drinks — both alcoholic and non-alcoholic — to Majordomo vet Austin Hennelly, and acknowledging the teamwork required to take Kato to the next level. Bailey’s expertise in wine, drawn from the Kitchen in Sacramento to NoMad in New York City and here in LA, helps round out Kato from a mostly alcohol-free dinner to one thoughtfully incorporating beverages as a significant part of the experience.
The visual elements, from the Match Stoneware ceramics to the Goodfight uniforms to the artwork furnished by Yao’s late grandfather Yao Zuozhi (which show as three paintings in the bar) to James Jean’s bespoke Quenelles, a rather stunning mixed media wood panel piece made specifically for Kato, show an intentionality and thoughtfulness.
Ultimately, diners wouldn’t care a peep about Kato unless it delivered on the plate, and while it’s too early to tell if the highly acclaimed menu will live up to its prior success, Yao seems to have the right balance of anxiousness and cool collectedness right now. The stakes are higher, but his patience has paid off with this opportunity, with the good will of Kato and the continued effort of the team executing not one man’s vision but an idea that LA-based Asian American cuisine, tinted by Taiwan and Japan, can stand with the great culinary perspectives of the world. Maybe one day, LA’s food might be in the same regard as the science-oriented modernism of Spain, or the fermentation of Denmark, or the indigenous influences of Peru, or the vegetable sophistication of France.
While LA’s upscale restaurant scene has certainly seen its fair share of challenges throughout the pandemic, Kato’s reopening in Downtown signals the enduring relevance of tweezer-built, artistically inclined fare in Los Angeles. Kato’s story has been a local wonder, a Walnut-born chef who put in a short time at places like Benu and Coi before opening a modest under-$100 tasting menu to a curious West LA crowd. Since then, accolades from critics, the Michelin guide, and everywhere in between have propelled Kato into the kind of regard a restaurant could only dream of. And the second chapter of that journey starts tonight.
The price of dinner at Kato starts at $195 and includes food but not drinks, tax, or gratuity. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations are available here.