Sushi Taro is always slammed. During half-price sushi happy hour, the bar looks like a more civilized set of The Hunger Games as 20-somethings compete for bar stools. Meanwhile, every table in the dining room is spoken for, forming a mixed tableau of first-time sushi explorers and Japanese expats closing their eyes while they practically taste home. It’s awash in successes, but no 30-year-old business is without its war stories.
Jin Yamazaki, the restaurant’s general manager who has been on and off the staff since Sushi Taro opened in July 1986 recounts two time periods when the restaurant struggled financially: when they first opened and when they re-emerged in 2009 after a major renovation and concept overhaul. The transformation involved a shift from a 120-seat, open-kitchen restaurant with an izakaya-style menu to a paired-down, more refined dining room serving delicate, Kyoto-style kaiseki cuisine.
“For the first three months after the renovation, we were dealing with one third of customers who would sit down, look at at the menu, and walk out,” Yamazaki says. They’d clamor, “Where’s the California roll?” Jin Yamazaki works alongside his brother, Chef Nobu Yamazaki, who took over ownership duties from his parents in July 2003.
“At the beginning, we didn’t put roll sushi on our menu—that was our intention,” Jin Yamazaki explains. The goal was to eliminate choices, thereby educating customers about what they would likely encounter in Japan. For another example, check out the bar.
“You’ll notice we don’t carry any hard liquors to make cocktails—that’s the idea. We’re not necessarily giving people what they want,” Jin continues. “If they can choose a Grey Goose and tonic, this person will never explore. Limit their freedom first, that’s education.” The Yamazaki family hails from Niigata, Japan—one of the most distinguished sake producing regions in the country.
Sushi Taro will celebrate 30 years of highs and lows with an all-you-can-eat sushi fête on Saturday, Aug. 13. The restaurant will start taking reservations here starting July 24 for the $45-per-person feast. Various seatings will be available from 12:30 to 9 p.m., with a time limit of two hours per group. No-shows will be charged in full.
On what’s next for Nobu and Jin Yamazaki, they say there are no plans to expand, despite getting that question from customers often. This comes at a time when competitor Minoru Ogawa of Sushi Capitol, opened Sushi Ogawa in Woodley Park, with restaurant number three on the way in Shaw.
Jin Yamazaki explains talent is the roadblock. Because Japanese food is so simple, there’s nowhere to hide. “If there’s no talent, no matter how much you try, how much you teach, you’re going to be average,” Yamazaki continues. “I don’t see anybody who has talent, that’s the reason we can’t divide.”
Sushi Taro, 1503 17th St. NW; (202) 462-8999; sushitaro.com
Photo by Laura Hayes