Jin Yamazaki behind the bar at Sushi Taro
Jin Yamazaki behind the bar at Sushi Taro Credit: Laura Hayes

One of D.C.’s bastions of Japanese cuisine won’t celebrate its 34th anniversary in July. Sushi Taro‘s last day in business is tomorrow, at least in its current form. Co-owners and brothers Jin and Nobu Yamazaki don’t see a path forward for restaurants after COVID-19. “So far I haven’t seen anybody who understands this horrible, horrible future view,” Jin says. “There is no going back. We are moving to the future.”

Mayor Muriel Bowser closed restaurants to on-premise consumption on March 16 to gain control of the virus that has killed 231 people in the District. For more than six weeks, restaurants like Sushi Taro have tried to soldier on by offering take-out and delivery. Sometimes the Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant, founded by Jin and Nobu’s parents back in 1986, had so many orders they couldn’t accept any more. 

Take-out, Jin says, is the only way forward that makes sense from a business standpoint. “40 percent of restaurants are going to fail,” he says. He doesn’t think people will dine out regularly until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19. That could take between 12 and 18 months. “This type of thing might happen again. It could be 10 years from now,” he says. “The model that fits is take-out. We’ve already adapted. We’re not going back.”

Staff health is another concern. “We’re putting ourselves in danger,” Jin says. “When you compare life and business, it’s not a comparison, so we made the decision over a week ago that we’re going to close down at the end of this week.”

Jin says they’ll take about two months off before hopefully returning as a take-out only restaurant, regardless of whether diners are allowed to dine in restaurants again. They’re not sure if they’ll keep the same space on 17th Street NW in Dupont Circle or whether they’ll move to a new space that’s more conducive for take-out business.

That means no one will sit down to enjoy a multi-course kaiseki meal, gather around a bubbling pot of sukiyaki, or line-up for Sushi Taro’s infamous half-price happy hour.

Jin thinks other restaurant owners also believe their restaurants are going to fail if they depend on dine-in customers returning within a year. “Maybe this will bring comfort to someone with the same view,” he says. He’s particularly worried about inflation following the pandemic and whether money will lose its value. It’s too much of a risk to operate a full-service restaurant in what will be a very different economic climate.

Sushi Taro is loved by both newcomers to Japanese cuisine and people who have eaten Japanese food their whole lives. The restaurant has served as the unofficial dining room for Japanese diplomats living in D.C. And, despite having the word “sushi” in its name, Chefs Nobu and Masa Kitayama have introduced Washingtonians to many other facets of Japanese cuisine.

There’s very little staff turnover, which gives it the feel of a family restaurant. You see the same faces pouring your sake and explaining whatever delicacy Nobu cooked.

Going the take-out route, Jin says, is “a gamble, but we think it’s the best way to keep Sushi Taro.”