Ask people about Katana Kitten, the bi-level Japanese-American bar in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, and the word that comes up most often is “fun.” The second-most-frequent is “party,” as in, “It’s always party time at Katana Kitten,” according to drinks pro Maxwell Berlin. The staff “throws a party when [each guest] arrives and makes everyone feel over-the-top special,” says Camille Austin, the senior director of advocacy for Casa Lumbre Spirits.
“Yes, we throw a party,” says Masahiro “Masa” Urushido, the bar’s managing partner and its “director of deliciousness.” “But as much as we love and enjoy throwing a party, everything comes down to everyday service, and that’s what matters. We’re just doing what we’re supposed to do, you know?”
Urushido’s graciousness, humility, and winning smile are as much Katana Kitten’s trademarks as are the Japanese highballs and sandos on the menu. Although the bar is Urushido’s creation (along with co-founders Greg Boehm and James Tune), along with its drinks and even its food recipes (some of which came from his grandmother), he credits his team and even guests for the accolades that started rolling in soon after it opened in 2018.
“It’s about the team,” says Urushido. “It’s always about the team, right? It’s not about any individuals. I’m glad that what we do is being received in a very positive way, and we are grateful for that.”
Urushido takes an admittedly unconventional approach to hospitality at a bar with such a serious cocktail program, where the precision of service of Japanese bartending connects with the warmth of an American corner bar. This, not coincidentally, was the aim when opening the bar. The team’s goal was “embracing the charm of the neighborhood bar,” says Urushido. “An American dive-bar feel meets Japanese cocktails, with food inspired by traditions and rituals.”
“We wanted to make a very approachable bar for everyone,” Urushido continues. “Of course, it has really good drinks and food and atmosphere, but it’s really everyone’s everyday bar.” Katana Kitten has, of course, grown into much more than that in the meantime, but its casual, approachable vibe remains. In a town full of cooler-than-thou cocktail bars, Katana Kitten’s easygoing style sets it apart.
It’s a concept Katana Kitten’s guests appreciate. “It’s one of the best bars in the world, and it’s absolutely because of the hospitality,” says Caer Maiko Ferguson, the general manager of DrinkWell in Austin. “I’ve never seen any bar of this quality be able to not take itself so seriously, which makes for a seriously playful and kind environment.”
Overall, it comes down to a spirit of generosity. In his 2021 book The Japanese Art of the Cocktail, which he co-wrote with Michael Anstendig, Urushido credits the Japanese concept of omotenashi, or selfless hospitality, a constant throughout Japanese bartending. “It is about serving guests with one’s full heart and subjugating one’s ego without putting on airs or being inauthentic,” he writes.
It’s harder to describe his own approach to hospitality, says Urushido. “To me it’s more about the feeling. It’s really about relationships and the feeling that you want to do something for other people, which is nice.”