The future of the dozens of restaurants and other food businesses in San Francisco’s Japan Center mall remains an open question, as their proprietors grapple with landlords unwilling to cut any discounts on rent owed during the pandemic. It’s a situation that puts the continued existence of Japantown itself into question. But if there’s one small silver lining that has come out of the looming crisis, it’s this: Japantown merchants themselves are lending each other a helping hand.
Case in point: After reading about the difficulties facing Takara, one of the Japan Center restaurants in danger of being displaced, Pim Techamuanvivit — who runs Nari, the buzzy Thai restaurant located on the ground floor of the Hotel Kabuki next door — felt a deep sense of sadness. As it turns out, she’d been a frequent lunch customer at Takara for years. “Japantown is integral in the fabric of San Francisco. Part of what makes this city great,” Techamuanvivit tweeted. “We cannot lose it.”
Then she thought of a way she might be able to help: Nari had recently launched outdoor dining in the cozy patio area it had built, just a few steps away from Takara’s doorstep. Takara has only been able to offer takeout since it reopened in mid-June. What if they were able to use that outdoor space during its busy lunch service, when Nari is closed anyway?
Techamuanvivit reached out to Lena Turner, Takara’s 91-year-old owner, and the two worked out the details: Starting this Saturday, Takara will open for outdoor lunch service on Nari’s patio, Wednesday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. It’ll be the first time the restaurant has been able to offer dine-in service since the start of the pandemic.
“We are so excited,” Turner says, noting that she was able to rehire one of her longtime servers as a result of the arrangement. And while the restaurant’s long-term prospects are still up in the air, Turner says she’s been deeply moved by the outpouring of support that she’s received — so many people telling her how much they love the home-style Japanese food the restaurant has been known for for the past 20 years.
Techamuanvivit says she’d been a Takara customer long before she had a restaurant in Japantown, often stopping in for lunch to enjoy its ”homey kind of cooking” — a plate of katsu curry or saba shioyaki (grilled mackerel), or its excellent tempura, or one of the hefty chirashi bowls. The lunchtime bento boxes have long been some of the most satisfying meals you can find in Japantown.
“It’s not a fancy place, but when you go, you have a sense that it’s a community,” Techamuanvivit says. “I see these tables of little old Japanese ladies having their ladies’ lunches all the time. It’s one of those places that, if we lose it, Japantown is not going to feel the same.” And Turner, she says, is one of Japantown’s great characters — always ready to regale customers with stories from the old days, like the time Yoko Ono (!) told her how much she loved her sushi.
“It’s a small-scale thing that we could do,” Techamuanvivit says of the collaboration. “There’s much bigger issues. But it feels good to do something.”
Takara will offer outdoor seating at Nari (1625 Post Street) during its lunch hours, Wednesday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. It will also continue to serve takeout.