Over the past year, Japanese steakhouses have gained traction in the Capital Region, an area where Asian cuisine was previously defined by sushi bars and Chinese restaurants. At least three new hibachi-style restaurants have opened in the past year.
Recent additions include the Tokyo Steakhouse in Colonie, Hana Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Bar in Guilderland, Kabuki Japanese Restaurant in Latham and two unaffiliated restaurants named Sakura — one in Clifton Park, the other in Latham. These restaurants joined existing teppanyaki-style restaurants that include Miyako in Guilderland and Koto in Colonie.
Some offer the string of new hibachi restaurants as evidence that a more diversified palate is developing among Capital Region restaurant patrons.
“People are realizing there’s more to the dining experience,” said Charlie Cheng, the general manager of Hana, which opened in Guilderland last spring.
At the centerpiece of the Japanese steakhouse is the steel-plate table-side cooking that was first introduced in the United States during the late 1940s. The hibachi-style of cooking is better known as “teppanyaki,” its Japanese moniker meaning “steel-plate broiling.”
The brand of cooking was popularized during the 1960s, when Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki established Benihana of Tokyo in New York City. The former Japanese sumo wrestler aimed at blending a dining experience with entertainment.
Aoki fashioned his tables around a steel griddle, on which his chefs would prepare meals of steak, chicken and shrimp while offering dazzling displays of knife and spatula prowess. With the theme, Aoki was able to found a restaurant empire that now includes 85 restaurants across the globe.
While Benihana locations spread rapidly across the metropolitan areas of New York and in California in the 1970s and 1980s, the concept of teppanyaki cooking took longer to establish in the Capital Region. Hiro’s Japanese Restaurant, which opened in Colonie in 1973, is generally regarded as the area’s first hibachi grill.
Hiro’s would largely remain the only game in the Capital Region before more Japanese steakhouses started to crop up during the early 1990s. By 2004, nearly a dozen hibachi restaurants were operating in the Albany area.
“It’s not a new trend by any sense of the imagination,” said Chuck Hunt, the vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association. But it is one that appears to be gaining steam in the restaurant market, especially in the suburban towns around Albany. In 2007, two hibachi restaurants — both named Sakura — opened within nine miles of one another.
The first to open was Sakura Steak House Hibachi & Sushi Bar in Latham, which was established at the former Fannie’s Restaurant in July 2007. Several months later, an unaffiliated restaurant of the same name opened in the redesigned Clifton Park Center off Route 146.
Then last spring, the area hibachi scene was joined by Hana in Guilderland and the Tokyo Steakhouse in Colonie, which opened within a month of each other.
“There was only one a few years ago,” said Cheng, Hana’s general manager. “And they were doing a lot of business.”
Tommy Zhang, who is the principal owner of Hana and also owns the Koto Japanese Steakhouse restaurants in Plattsburgh and Burlington, Vt., renovated the former Fresno’s Southwest Restaurant on Route 20 to incorporate a casual Japanese decor. Hana was designed to seat about 200 customers and features 13 teppanyaki tables, including one that seats 14.
Since opening in May, Cheng said the restaurant has seen robust business. He credited the combination of a friendly atmosphere, the performances by his staff and the relatively low cost of his food for drawing a growing number of customers.
“We realize ultimately, hibachi cooking is a family fun cooking,” he said. “The food is great, but it’s never going to be compared to a fine dining establishment.”
However, not all of the area’s Japanese steakhouses are flocking to the hibachi concept. Mari’s Japanese Cuisine in Schenectady, for example, cooks in the kitchen.
The owners of Kabuki, a Capital Region restaurant that served teppanyaki-style fare for more than a decade, decided to ditch their hibachi tables when they moved their business from Clifton Park to Latham last spring.
Kabuki owner Hiro Kudo said her restaurant still serves hibachi cooking, just not prepared at tableside. This way, she said she can keep her prices are more competitive in a market that has grown considerably since she first opened.
“The hibachi prices were higher,” she said. “This way, we make it more reasonable for everybody.”
Aside from its entertainment value, Cheng credited the popularity of teppanyaki cooking to a general perception that Japanese cooking is healthy. As patrons become more health conscious, they seem more attracted to hibachi restaurants.
“It’s healthy, there are good portions and it’s a market that’s still growing,” he said.
The growing popularity of hibachi restaurants may also have something to do with the growing diversity of the Capital Region, explained John Spadafora, a spokesman for the Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce. With the pronounced growth of high-tech industry, he said, there is an influx of new residents in the area bringing tastes from other areas of the country and globe.
“When they’re new to this area, they still want to eat the cuisine from the areas where they came from,” he said.