In 1946 when Edward Shigematsu, wife Kikue and family Kimiko, Koichi (Kobo), Kenji, and Ryozo (Joe) opened Pacific Sukiyaki restaurant in San Francisco, most Americans knew little about Japanese food. The early success of Pacific Sukiyaki prompted a move to its location on the California Street cable car line at Grant Avenue. The restaurant was renamed Yamato (which means mountain gate in Japanese).
Walter Harada was commissioned to design the new Yamato Sukiyaki House into a restaurant of charm and artistic intensity to reflect Edward and Kikue’s approach to the food of Japan. At the same time, they expanded the concept that dining is an art form, that service, visual presentations, colors, even the plates themselves were bound together as a total experience. Steak teriyaki was served sizzling on a cast-iron dish shaped like a fish, ceramic cups of varying shapes contained dipping sauces, classic tea cups without handles, square plates (relieving repetition), deep cast-iron dishes for the fish soup served on burners at the table, lacquered wooden rice bowls, covered wooden soup bowls, infinite variety even to the delicate sake vase and its tiny cups. Kimono-clad waitresses offered guests hot towels (oshibori) to clean their hands before enjoying their meal. Yamato provided an exciting Japanese culinary experience that was much imitated.
In every alcove of the tatami or Western dining rooms, there was an ever changing exhibit of Ikebana flowers, sculpture or an authentic work of Japanese art displayed. The sand of the Japanese garden was brushed daily, river rocks caught the water flowing out of a graceful bamboo fountain. The Uguisu-bari bridge, which spoke to warn of people approaching, spanned the pool between the upstairs Western dining room and the tatami-style rooms. A beautiful sushi bar was formed of quarter-sawn pine that revealed the wood’s natural beauty against the black-lacquered serving top of the counter. The sharpest of knives did not bruise the freshly caught fish that was brought to the restaurant that morning from Fisherman’s Wharf.
Besides the sushi menu, other menus offered fragrant and delicate tempura, sashimi, sukiyaki prepared at the table, teriyaki dishes and other imaginative fare. The seven-course Mikado dinner changed four times a year and included fresh foods available in the market place. Japanese menus made an ever-increasing number of Japanese travelers feel at home. Yamato was also a regular stop for tour groups from the United States and abroad.
Yamato Sukiyaki House won many awards for dining excellence, most notably from Travel/Holiday magazine, Mobil Four Star awards, and Epicurean Rendezvous Magazine. In 1988, restaurant critic and columnist Bill Alex approved San Francisco Magazine's designation of Yamato as the "Best Japanese restaurant in San Francisco". The Travel/Holiday magazine consistently awarded Yamato Sukiyaki House its “Dining Distinction Award” as one of the “Outstanding Restaurants of the World.”