For more than 20 years, Takara was one of Japantown’s most well-loved destinations for home-style Japanese cooking — the kind of neighborhood-y place where older Japanese ladies would regularly meet up to for social lunches, and where the bento boxes were known to be one of the best lunch deals in town.
Now, all of that is coming to an end: This Sunday, Takara will dish out its last takeout box of impeccably crisp tempura and serve its final generously portioned chirashi bowl. After that, the restaurant will permanently close.
Ultimately, the restaurant was done in by a prolonged rent dispute with its landlord, the Beverly Hills-based developer 3D Investments. Along with other tenants at the Japan Center mall, Takara had been asking for some form of rent relief to help mitigate the challenges of the coronavirus crisis — specifically, for some discount on the rent and common area maintenance fees that the restaurant owed for the first three months of the pandemic, when the mall had been closed entirely, making it impossible for the majority of the shops and restaurants inside to open.
In the end, the landlord never budged on its insistence on collecting every penny of rent for those months, says Lena Turner, the restaurant’s 91-year-old owner. “They wouldn’t negotiate anything.”
Turner explains that because of the restaurant’s hidden-away location inside the mall near the Hotel Kabuki, with no facade accessible from the street, trying to sustain the business on takeout only during the pandemic has been especially challenging, Most days, Turner says, the restaurant was only able to net $200 or $300 in sales (“a joke,” she says) — this while Turner was having to pay close to $20,000 a month in rent and maintenance fees.
The restaurant opened for outdoor dining for about a month this past fall, borrowing a patio from its next-door neighbor, Nari, before the city went into lockdown again, forcing Takara to go back to takeout only — and, in any case, it was too little too late.
Takara’s closure forebodes what activists fear might wind up being a deluge of permanent closures, as every single tenant in the Japan Center mall faces the same dilemma that eventually forced Takara to call it quits. And that would be an unmitigated disaster, as the 40 or so storefronts in the Japan Center’s three buildings constitute the majority of Japantown’s businesses. As Diane Matsuda, a staff attorney with Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, told Eater SF in October, “If we lose these tenants in the three malls, we lose almost all of Japantown.”
Turner herself is a beloved figure in Japantown — a fixture in the community for more than four decades, going back to when she opened the very first restaurant in the Japan Center, Sapporo-ya Ramen, in 1976.
Fortunately, for her many friends in the neighborhood, Turner isn’t planning on going anywhere. Even at 91 years old, she says she doesn’t feel ready to retire, and in fact, she’s already lined up her next move: She bought Kiss Seafood, a small and cozy omakase joint just a couple of blocks away on Laguna Street, taking the business over from her friends. And so, she’s bringing over a couple of her cooks from Takara, and probably in about a month’s time, she’ll reopen Kiss for lunchtime takeout with many of her old customers’ favorites on the menu — the same tempura, the same bento boxes.
Needless to say, the decision to close Takara was bittersweet for Turner, but looking ahead to her next challenge, she’s surprisingly upbeat.
“I have had so much good life since I was born, and maybe this is the first time God gave me a very hard time,” Turner says. “That is fair — because I had so much good life.”