If you weren’t having dinner at Sushi Roku before a night of clubbing at places like Garden of Eden, the Viper Room, and Sky Bar in the 90s, then you were a certifiable nobody. Only the somebodies hobnobbed over plates of spicy tuna and crispy rice and sipped Fuji Apple martinis on West Third Street back then.
When the sleek Japanese restaurant opened in 1996, it was one of the scene-iest see-and-be-seen spots in town. Nevermind that it was in a tiny building between a parking lot and body shop, and there were barely any other decent food and drink options on that stretch. It was central for wannabes and young Hollywood execs; California rolls and cocktails; nigiri and Friends stars. The dawn of the uber-chic sushi bar was born.
“There were maybe three kinds of sushi restaurants in L.A. at the time,” says Innovative Dining Group co-founder Lee Maen. “There were mom-and-pop spots in strip malls, a few rock-and-roll places for sushi bombs and dancing on tables in the Valley, and Matsuhisa, which of course was doing very high-end Japanese cuisine. So we thought, let’s make sushi fashionable, kind of sexy. We wanted it to be affordable and approachable. We added a full bar for cocktails, the first Japanese restaurant to have do that in L.A. It really revolutionized the way we ate sushi.”
Add in the (then) contemporary design by Dodd Mitchell, and you have a certifiable hot spot. “It took off from day one,” says Maen. “We paid off investors in 13 months.”
Now that trendy sushi template has been replicated all over L.A. and around the country, which is part of the reason IDG is closing the restaurant after 18 years—there are a lot of copycats, even along West Third Street. “While it’s flattering when people take your ideas, it draws away attention from your business,” Maen says. “So you constantly have to evolve.”
And evolve they shall. Partly because they felt the original Sushi Roku location ran its course, and partly because their Italian restaurant, Rivabella, didn’t succeed and they had this great available space in West Hollywood, IDG will debut a new concept, ROKU, on Sunset Boulevard in November.
The idea is two-fold. One part of the restaurant, which has undergone a complete floor-to-ceiling renovation, will feature teppanyaki-style cooking, where chefs sizzle meat, seafood, and vegetable specialties on a grill in front of you. If they can do for teppanyaki what they did for sushi, IDG might be on to something.
“We grew up with Benihana, and it was a great place back then,” Maen says. “Now it’s not the same. The food quality isn’t great, but the concept is amazing and people love the idea. In Japan, we went to a high-end teppan place in Roppongi. This chef was like a sushi chef, showing such mastery as he cut the Wagyu. The show was the chef cooking and serving, not throwing shrimp at you and lighting things on fire.”
The other side will be more sushi focused, featuring mainstays from the Sushi Roku menu, but also highlighting new, experimental dishes. Think of it like a test kitchen, of sorts. Of course there will be spicy tuna on crispy rice, filet mignon-wrapped asparagus, and yellowtail with chilies, but also maybe udon noodles with sea urchin, or some sort of uni toast. “It will be very modern, very Millennial,” Maen says. “We want to push the envelope a bit more.” Any items that people fall in love with will become menu standards; some may even show up on the other Sushi Roku menus.
So, yes, that means the Sushi Rokus in Pasadena, Santa Monica, Newport Beach, Scottsdale, and Las Vegas aren’t going anywhere, and neither are any of their other concepts. The group has about 15 restaurants worldwide, and will continue to open more. They’re finally expanding their yakitori concept, Katana, for instance, with new locations in Chicago and Dubai. Their French brasserie Delphine will open in Dubai as well.
But there’s still time to bid a fond farewell to the original that started it all.
“So many people have had their first date there, they met new friends there, they brought their kids there,” says Maen. “We hope people will come back and relive those moments. We are grateful to have been a part of the influential community on Third Street for the past 18 years.”
Sushi Roku, 8445 W. Third St., L.A.; 323-655-6767
ROKU, 9201 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood