Humility is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Kenta Goto. It’s a reputation he has been cultivating, on both sides of the bar, starting first during his seven-year stint at Audrey Saunders’ lauded Pegu Club and still today at his first solo project, the eponymous Bar Goto.
In an industry dominated by strong and assertive, if not overly ostentatious, personalities, Goto’s calm yet self-assured demeanor offers a refreshing respite. From the familiar tap tap of the two tins before a shake to the wry smile offered as he floats a finished product across the bar, the subdued precision and grace of Goto’s bartending almost belie the countless honors and accolades that have been bestowed on him over the years—traits that make him all the more likable.
Though he had put in time at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Perry St and sake bar Decibel, it was of course at Pegu Club, under the tutelage of Sanders, that Goto learned the canon of Prohibition-era classics and developed his signature style of imbuing them with whispers of his Japanese upbringing—a motif that was integral in Bar Goto’s success. Take for example the now-iconic Sakura Martini, which boosts gin with junmai sake and maraschino liqueur, swapping an olive garnish for a salted cherry blossom; or the Umami Mary, a (you guessed it) Bloody Mary riff fortified with miso, shiitake and clamato.
But at what point during a tenure as head bartender at one of New York City’s best, seminal bars do you take the plunge to go solo? For Goto, that moment came about four years in, when his colleague, Del Pedro, branched off to open his own bar, Tooker Alley. By 2013, Goto himself had planted the seeds for a solo concept, the first step of what would become a two-year process from the finalization of his business plan to the opening night of Bar Goto in the summer of 2015.
Since then, a little over a year in, the bar has already been named one of the Five Best Bars by Bon Appetit, one the Best Cocktail Bars in NYC by Grub Street and the Best New Cocktail Bar at the 2016 Time Out Bar Awards. (Full disclosure: I was on the judging panel for the latter.) When asked what he feels distinguishes his bar from others, Goto points to three factors: his team, naturally, whom he praises for being detail-oriented and “doing a lot of small things right;” a short and simple menu that allows for an emphasis on quality control, and, lastly, a positive and memorable customer experience.
Though concise, Goto somewhat understates the breadth of his 13-drink menu, which artfully makes use of a number of traditional Japanese flavors and ingredients like Calpico, yuzu preserves and miso in classically oriented preparations. A menu of food, overseen by Goto’s friend Bohemian chef Kiyo Shinoki, is similarly succinct, tapping into Japanese izakaya-style bar snacks, ranging from excellent East-meets-West renditions of Japan’s savory pancake, okinomi-yaki, to miso-slicked wings and the best celery (yes, celery) you’ll ever taste in your life. “My mother had a restaurant back in Japan where she was making okonomi-yaki,” says Goto. “I have many memories of this, and I knew I wanted to do okonomi-yaki at my bar too. Also, customers generally tend to stay longer if they can eat while drinking.”
Luckily, his dimly lit cocktail den is a place you’d feel comfortable staying for hours. That signature Bar Goto experience—framed loosely by the Japanese art of selfless hospitality, omotenashi, which Goto also learned early in life at his mother’s Tokyo eatery—has helped him nurture a loyal following among New York City’s cocktail cognoscenti.
He recalls one particular couple, regulars of his at Pegu Club, who stopped by at Bar Goto for a drink. “First, the boyfriend came in alone to tell me that he was planning to propose,” says Goto. “When the couple showed up together, the boyfriend slipped a ring to me. And when they ordered, I brought her cocktail with the ring tied to it. It was a success and a pretty cool night.”
Beyond service, Goto also took a hands-on approach to the aesthetic design of the bar, which he says is meant to evoke an “old Japan-meets-Lower East Side” feel. As the driving creative force, Goto shared imagery of traditional Japanese houses with the architect for inspiration and left room for a handful of personal touches like his grandmother’s 100-year-old golden kimono, which is spread out along the back wall of the dining area. The bar’s practical design was also crucial, says Goto, who drew his own measurements for the back bar area with efficiency and mobility in mind.
It’s almost difficult to imagine the always-poised barman being shaken by anything, but by Goto’s own admission, the success of the bar was not without its challenges. The biggest one? “To balance my work and my personal life with my family,” he says. The very-soon-to-be-father tries to be out early enough to have time at home with his wife, Sarah, who has more “traditional” work hours.
As for advice he would give to other bartenders looking to foray into entrepreneurship, Goto suggests patience: “Don’t rush into anything. Some opportunities may appear here and there, but you need only one—the one that’s right for you. It’s easy to jump at the first opportunity, but it may not be the deal that is best for you.”
With Bar Goto in a stable, if not comfortable, position, Goto says a new project may be in the works (after baby Goto, of course). Knowing Kenta, it may be a while before it happens—in the spirit of waiting for the right opportunity and all that.