Maneki’s Jean Nakayama is as much a legend as the restaurant, which opened in 1904. 

When the pandemic closed restaurants, Maneki—the oldest Japanese restaurant in the city—stopped serving raw fish. Some things just don’t work well with long waits between kitchen and consumption, operator Jean Nakayama says, even at the place that started the first sushi bar in Seattle. Instead, the restaurant started offering vegetable sushi, or cooked fish. In lieu of a transportable dessert, the kitchen added a rotating Birthday Roll, with a candle stuck in the wasabi.

Even after 117 years, Maneki is defined by flux, an ability to bend with history’s forces. This has not been its first crisis. A world war, the Spanish Flu, another world war and with it the Japanese incarceration that devastated the city’s Nihonmachi—Maneki has persisted through all.

The restaurant’s changed owners, food, hours, locations (before incarceration it lived in a three-story Japanese-style castle). It’s endured for the same reason regulars pack a tatami room with friends or stop by the bar for a miso-marinated black cod collar: consistently good food and a sense of deep, genuine hospitality. “It’s like a second home for people to have dinner,” Nakayama says, “and they don’t have to do the dishes.”

When diners couldn’t come into this second home, Maneki came to them. Fusae “Mom” Yokoyama—Maneki’s 91-year-old bartender, who’s been at the restaurant since the 1960s—had to stay home from work because of higher Covid risk. So she spent her days checking in on regulars who were also stuck at home alone. “Her job,” Nakayama says, “was to call everybody and give them a cheer… To say, ‘Hey how’s it going? Are you okay? Did you need some food?’”

Nakayama thinks the restaurant has persisted this long because of its customers, generations of regulars. People who’ve left her in tears with their GoFundMe donations, who trek from the suburbs for a meal, who she recognizes by voice when they pick up takeout. But the customers keep coming back because the sense of care Maneki’s staff shows is an intergenerational treasure, an heirloom—we have to hang onto it. 

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