On a recent Friday night at Sugata Japanese Restaurant on Solano Avenue, a convivial crowd filled the 10 tables, seven seats at the sushi bar and one traditional tatami room. Sake flowed and warm greetings were shared. The skilled hands of two sushi chefs behind the bar busily fashioned platters of glistening raw fish for eager diners. Each time a patron left for the night, a chorus of “Arigato” rang out — but with a bittersweet note, now that there is a big yellow sign outside announcing an impending change in ownership.
After 37 years, owners Koichi Endo and wife Kazue, both in their mid-70s, have decided it’s time to hang up their aprons. They explain that running the restaurant is a hard, competitive business with high expenses. Working at their cozy space six days a week (recently reduced to five) for almost four decades, they are tired. Their last day will be sometime in mid-December. A note will be posted when the exact date is chosen.
This big change will probably be hardest on the dozens of loyal customers who dine at Sugata once or twice a week. Many have been coming here for years, even decades. Some, who work nearby, regularly lunch at the cozy spot a few times a week. Other customers often drive in from as far away as San Rafael, Napa and Vallejo. Chef Endo, who is always found behind the sushi bar, not only remembers their names but their favorite orders as well.
One regular, Patrick, walks over from his job at Berkeley Auto Works. He has been coming for lunch about four times a week for the past three years. “I love the atmosphere,” he said. “It’s like my second family. Gives me a breath of fresh air on a long day.” He alternates his order between dishes like yakitori, stuffed Japanese peppers and Spicy Rolls. “I’m disappointed that the Endos are leaving, but I understand. I hope the new owner will maintain the same vibe.”
Chef Endo is planning to spend his time after retirement time working on their house, playing golf and maybe a little poker. He and his wife just celebrated their 50th anniversary of relocating to California. They made the big move in their 20s to help out some of her family members in the nursery business. He helped grow carnations, later roses and then worked as a gardener. Buying the restaurant with a partner was an investment. But when his partner wanted out, Endo learned how to make sushi from the chef and took over running the restaurant. His wife cooked in the kitchen. Now, son Masato has taken over those duties. But Kazue still brings in some of her pickled vegetables for special customers. And if there is a group of diners with a baby, she is happy to handle cuddling duties.
Masato Endo, who has worked at Sugata for 27 years, said working so closely with his parents has its ups and down, like any job. “People sometimes complain about slow service and we’ve had a few dine and dash customers who try to run out without paying,” he said. “The last guy wasn’t too clever. After skipping out without paying, he just went to the corner to catch a bus. I called the police and they picked him up at the bus stop.”
One regular customer at the sushi bar, who has been coming early on Friday nights to beat the crowd for over a year, is Nanako, who is originally from Japan. She comes because Endo-san has the best quality fish. “My family in Japan were fish brokers so I know good fish. And he picks the best.”
Not only do customers appreciate the freshest fish but also the jokes and special tidbits that Chef Endo bestows on his loyal customers who sit at the sushi bar, week after week, year after year.
Susi and Tom, a Kensington couple, typically call ahead to reserve their two seats at the sushi bar. They have been coming nearly every Friday night for three years, since they discovered Sugata. “We’ve made friends with the family and many regular patrons, “ said Susi. They arrive at 7 p.m. and often linger until past closing time at 9, chatting with the chef and his family.
Their close relationship with the Endos will be greatly missed. “One time my husband went fishing and we were left with lots of fish bones that we didn’t want to waste,” said Susi. “Masato, one of Chef Endo’s sons who prepares the hot food in the kitchen, met me at the restaurant on a Sunday and showed me how to make a broth from the bones,” she said. “And on a couple of Friday nights, when I told Endo-san I was going on a plane trip the next day, he presented me with a special roll to take on the plane — one without ingredients that need refrigeration.”
As it neared closing time, Chef Endo bestowed some delectable cooked yellowtail ribs to the few patrons still lingering at the sushi bar. “Watch out for the bones,” he said, cautioning those unfamiliar with the dish.
The good news, Chef Endo told his loyal customers and friends, is that new owner has worked in a Japanese restaurant in Dublin. “But will he change the recipes?” they asked. Endo shrugged. The future is as murky as a steaming bowl of miso soup. One bright note is that the new owner requested to shadow Chef Endo for two weeks before he takes over, and for Endo to help him during the first two weeks of his new transition. With his big heart, of course, Chef Endo agreed.
But whether or not the new owner keeps making the Endos’ recipes, what Sugata’s regular customers will miss most is the homey, intimate family feeling that has filled the cozy little restaurant for the past 37 years.