Jonathan Barthelmess didn’t want to open another restaurant.
It was early December last year when the Gold Coast-born Sydney-based restaurateur unveiled Greca at Howard Smith Wharves and sailed straight into the chaos of Christmas season. The easy, breezy Greek restaurant was an enormous hit with diners, but that success left Barthelmess physically exhausted.
“Greca took a lot out of me,” he says. “Under a year, opening another restaurant? I wasn’t planning on doing that.”
But next door, Matt Yazbek’s planned Brisbane expansion of his Toko restaurant had fallen through. Barthelmess couldn’t resist the opportunity: he took the concept for a Japanese style restaurant and bar originally earmarked for the Sydney CBD and instead applied it to Howard Smith Wharves.
“It just makes sense to do. And the more I started doing it, I got really excited … It’s all those simple things. We know how to get the rubbish collected,” he says, laughing. “We’ve got a team up here, we know the suppliers. It will be a hell of a lot easier.”
The result in November will be Yoko Dining, a 160-seat restaurant and bar inspired by Barthelmess’s time living and working in Japan, where he has a Tokyo instalment of his enormously popular Sydney restaurant, The Apollo. Once again designed by Barthelmess’s long-time collaborator George Livissianis, Barthelmess says to expect a venue that taps into Japanese retro futurism, its old heritage-listed riverside digs transformed with concrete, blond timber, sensory lighting, and a yolk-yellow and brown colour palette.
Downstairs will be a dining room surrounding an extensive open kitchen and outdoor seating overlooking the river. Upstairs, a mezzanine bar will be half hidden behind a carefully slatted wall that both separates the venue’s diners and drinkers but allows them to share its overall buzz.
It’s ambitious, but then Barthelmess has a proper Wild Bunch of hospitality pros backing him up.
In the kitchen, Cho Cho San (another celebrated Barthelmess venue), Kisumé and Momfuku veteran Kitak Lee will be preparing a seafood-heavy menu, with much of the food passed over a hibachi coal grill (acting as executive chef, overseeing both Greca and Yoko, is celebrated Aria chef Ben Russell). Lee’s dishes will include whole local fish, roasted duck and a premium Wagyu selection. The food will be backed by a 100-bottle wine list compiled by venue manager Nick Ingall.
“I think sometimes Japanese food gets translated in quite heavy ways,” Barthelmess says. “Teriyaki and mayonnaise and deep-fried and sushi, and it stops there a lot of the time. We’re focusing on fresh and light dishes with more sashimi and vegetables and ponzu. It’s more acidic with more plays on texture.
Upstairs, award-winning bartender Perryn Collier will oversee an extensive drinks menu that includes cocktail jugs, mocktails, yuzu slushies and long lists of both whisky and saké. The bar will also have a significant music component, with a dedicated space for DJs to spin vinyl late into the night.
“In Japan they have these record bars,” Barthelmess says. “You go for drinks and the guys are playing vinyl. They're pumping out these awesome tunes. And you just want to get up and dance on the table. I want that.”
Yoko Dining will open at Howard Smith Wharves in mid-November.