Virginia-Highland has seen a lot of growth in the last few years, with businesses such as Pielands and Kinship Butcher & Sundry bringing new life to the heart of the neighborhood. Last year, Alex Kinjo (MF Sushi, Kinjo Room) quietly opened Vietnamese spot Mai Kitchen on North Highland Avenue. Last week, he launched another restaurant a few doors down: Yakitori Kona. Replacing Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit, which shuttered in 2022, Yakitori Kona is intended as a family-friendly neighborhood restaurant serving Japanese street fare.
“This is something I always wanted to do, a place where I can come hang out,” Kinjo says. “Not everyone can afford fine dining. Yakitori food costs and overhead are lower, and the volume is high, so it’s affordable for everyone.”
Culinary director and chef Hugo Valdez, formerly of MF Sushi and Craft Izakaya, compiled a menu focused on skewers—chicken heart, eel, eggplant, and more. Local ingredients like Springer Mountain Farms chicken and flavors such as lemon pepper togarashi (on the fried chicken skin skewers) pay homage to the Atlanta. Appetizers include seaweed salad and shishito peppers with carrot ginger dressing. Lunch service begins in a couple weeks and will feature bento boxes, called Kona Boxes, with rice, soup, salad, and skewers.
All the skewers are cooked over Japanese white charcoal on a grill imported from Japan that reaches up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit. “The charcoal is just as important as the ingredients themselves. Without the proper charcoal, the food doesn’t taste or react the same,” Kinjo explains.
The charcoal even makes it into the decor. Its black color is a key element in the design of the dark and mysterious 800-square-foot space. Other design elements include red—signifying fire—sake labels on the ceiling—symbolizing socialization and good drinking food—and Japanese cranes. Though the restaurant offers table service, it does not accept reservations. Diners can eat at the bar, in a banquette, or snag one of two outdoor tables.
James Wampler created a beverage program with playful twists on classic drinks. The “Yes, Yes You Do” is a riff on a lychee martini using shochu as the base; the “Live a Little” is similar to a blackberry daiquiri featuring goat cheese foam. Wine, sake, and beer are also available. A late-night bite menu with items such as tuna tataki rice bowls and Japanese curry is in the works.
Kinjo is working on additional projects in West Midtown and along the BeltLine but is staying mum on details for now. Look for one to open in February or March 2024.
Check out the menu below.