Nakato celebrates 45 years
Courtesy NakatoEnter Nakato and you have to choose: left or right. To the left, a tranquil, elegant space with a sushi bar opens out to traditional dining rooms, lined with rice straw mats and separated by silent sliding wooden doors. To the right, boisterous clapping cheers on hibachi chefs in a circus of cooking.
In the middle is Sachiyo Nakato Takahara, the third generation owner of the 45-year-old restaurant. Sachi knows one can't go wrong with either dining experience; instead, she celebrates both: ritualistic tradition and playful kitsch. After all, it's the combination of both these worlds that has kept Nakato in Atlanta for so many decades.
The Cheshire Bridge restaurant has long served as a Japanese cultural center of sorts for Atlanta run by three generations of Nakato women. Nakato hires Japanese-born and trained chefs and supports their immigration processes. It regularly hosts Japanese tea ceremonies and flower arranging classes and celebrates annual customs, such as Osechi boxes, special bento boxes for the new year. The private tatami rooms with the straw mats, Sachi says, are the only ones of their kind in the state of Georgia.
Nakato's story stretches back to November 1972, when matriarch Testuko Nakato opened her first restaurant in Atlanta after immigrating to the states. She purchased a former Italian restaurant on Piedmont Road and enlisted the help of Japanese contractors, architects, and designers that she brought in from Japan to restore the building and make it as culturally accurate as possible. She then handpicked a team of chefs from Japan, a tradition still held at Nakato.
Though she had no background in the restaurant world, Testuko's love for Japanese culture and great personal warmth made up for whatever she lacked in experience. "She appreciated the details of the culture," says her granddaughter, Sachi. "When you are a first-generation immigrant, you do what you know best. For our family, it was food."
In 1991, Testuko's daughter Hiroe Nakato moved the restaurant to its current location on Cheshire Bridge Road and opened a second location in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Hiroe's brother expanded the family business further, adding two locations in Charlotte, North Carolina, and one in Springfield, Missouri. "This 45th anniversary honors the second generation that brought us here," says Sachi, "my aunt and uncles and mom and dad who built it from zero."
Fourteen years ago, Sachi took over as Atlanta's general manager. Her mother, Hiroe, acts as a consultant, providing guidance on all Nakato matters. Knowledge is passed down and blended with newfangled technology. Each week, Sachi chats with her mother in Japan over Skype about business, visions for the future, and family. But as she enters the later stages of life, Hiroe has begun to worry about the limitations of time.
"She wants to make sure she's doing her best to pass that knowledge down to the third generation," Sachi says. "I've cried at these Skype meetings. I've laughed at these Skype meetings. They are halfway across the world and I understand where she's coming from in terms of feeling the need to pass down as much information as possible. I want to be that listening ear."
Today, Nakato offers a wide variety of Japanese cuisine, but Sachi is most proud of the sushi and sashimi menus. She recommends ordering the omakase, which tells Nakato's excutive chef, Yoshi Kinjo, "I'll leave it to you," therefore guaranteeing all the freshest cuts. Of course, such dining now is popular across the city, but Sachi says that back when her grandmother first arrived on the scene, eating raw seafood was a totally new concept. "It was considered fish bait!" she laughs.
This year, Sachi will begin renovating Nakato to better reflect her personal style, while staying true to her family's Japanese tradition. She will pay tribute to her grandmother, Testuko, and her love for centuries-old, flower-printed Hanafuda playing cards by incorporating them into the design of the restaurant. Just like the delicately detailed cards, Nakato's menu reflects the intricacies of each season. Dishes are served on seasonal dinnerware imported from Japan.
Nakato now is in a season of change, but Sachi is in no rush to push her vision for the restaurant. In the meantime, her nine-year-old daughter, Naomi, and five-year-old Ellie are being groomed as the fourth generation to share the art of Japanese dining with Atlanta. "It's a milestone to be passing down a new tradition from my parent's generation to my generation," Sachi says. "Now it's my turn to make it mine."
Nakato, 1776 Cheshire Bridge Road N.E. 404-873-6582. www.nakatorestaurant.com.