The late Tetsuko Nakato opened her namesake restaurant in 1972, making it Atlanta’s oldest Japanese eatery.
Now located on Cheshire Bridge Road, and operated by her granddaughter, Sachi Nakato Takahara, Nakato Japanese Restaurant is celebrating 50 years in 2022, with a series of throwback specials and promotions.
Nakato’s longevity is a testament to its historic and cultural significance, helping introduce traditional Japanese foodways to Atlanta, and showcasing the likes of teppanyaki, tempura, sashimi and sushi before they were available readily in the city.
But, the lasting legacy of the restaurant is its fine-tuned hospitality, experienced by generations of loyal regulars who continue to make it the place to be on birthdays and anniversaries.
“I was at the restaurant the other night, and some parents introduced me to their 15-year-old son, who was celebrating a birthday that he’d celebrated here his whole life,” Takahara said. “Those kinds of stories keep me going, and inspire me to do better for the guests.”
When she was just 11 or 12 years old, Takahara remembers going to the restaurant to help out on Friday and Saturday nights. “I thought it was coolest thing to go and feel that energy,” she said.
Since taking over operations about 17 years ago, Takahara has updated and refined many of the restaurant’s systems, including switching from handwritten reservations to Open Table.
And, because she studied art, and once owned a pottery gallery, she quickly tuned in to the esthetic and marketing aspects of the business.
“I feel like my grandmother’s generation, and my parent’s generation, built up the clientele, and did great business, and put it on repeat for me,” she said. “When I came in, it was me adding the technology aspect, and now the social media and marketing. I love that, because of my arts background.”
Credit: © Bryant Upchurch - 2008
Credit: © Bryant Upchurch - 2008
In contrast, Takahara noted her immigrant family’s struggles, including overcoming the language barrier. “For a U.S.-born Japanese kid, to be able to balance both cultures in a good way was an advantage,” she said.
Like most Atlanta restaurants, Nakato had its pandemic ups and downs over the past two years. In-house dining closed for several months, but curbside takeout and pickup was available from a parking lot kiosk that Takahara designed.
“Someone asked my mom what she was most proud of, and she said, ‘That we made it,’” Takahara said, laughing. “In the 50 years, that’s what she’s most proud of. But, I thought that was so honest, and so direct, and so correct, at the same time.”
Among other silver linings, Nakato’s takeout business boomed during the pandemic, and sushi sales doubled, Takahara said.
“With the sales doubling, we were able get a nice volume of seasonal fish in from Japan,” she added. “That expanded the variety, as well as the quality, so it was a best-case scenario for us.”
Also, in May 2021, in partnership with American Express, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded Nakato a $40,000 historic preservation grant, which can be used to update and preserve exterior physical spaces and online businesses.
“With the pandemic, I realized that Nakato’s regulars and neighbors supported us big-time,” Takahara said. “And, because we had that relationship built up, we were nominated for the grant by our neighborhood.”
Looking forward to 50th anniversary events, Takahara said, “We’re trying to bring retro back. We’re thinking of cocktail lists with things that were really popular in the ‘70s. Some of the original menu items and some of the original menu prices might be showing up here and there, as a surprise. And, we’ll be doing that as a countdown to our Nov. 11 celebration.”
Asked whether she sometimes feels the weight of running a restaurant that’s become such an institution, Takahara paused for a moment.
“When I stop to think about it, it’s kind of numbing in a sense, because how am I going to keep it going?” she said. “I want to make my grandma and my parents proud. So, that pressure is very heavy on me. Thinking about how to grow and expand the business, to be able to pass it down to the next generation, is my homework.”
Regulars share Nakato memories
Rebecca Holmes, a retired Delta Air Lines flight attendant, is typical of Nakato Japanese Restaurant regulars. She grew up celebrating her birthdays with her family at the restaurant. And, later, that tradition continued with her husband, Charles, and their children.
“We moved to Atlanta in 1982, and Nakato was the first restaurant we visited. I was 12, and it quickly became our favorite,” Holmes recalled. “Now that I do the math, that was 40 years ago this year. I’ve celebrated every birthday since (at Nakato), except one year, when I was an exchange student in Belgium.
“We most often sit in the formal dining room,” she said. “The menu there is so diverse. The children can still order their hibachi, but the shokado bento box is our favorite. It’s got a little bit of everything. The quality and the service are unmatched, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a personal family experience. You can’t help but feel the warmth and enthusiasm.”
General contractor Tina Farris has been a regular for about 25 years, and routinely celebrates special occasions at Nakato. Farris even held her mother’s memorial at the restaurant.
“For birthdays, we usually go with my sisters and my nieces,” Farris said. “When they closed during the pandemic, I couldn’t wait until they opened, again. All of my kids grew up there, and my grandkids love it, too. Usually, when we go, we have close to 20 people.
“My mother passed Sept. 10th, 2019. Her favorite place to go was Nakato,” she said. So, Farris called Sachi Nakato Takahara, who runs the restaurant, “and asked if we could do the repast there. We had our own little menu, and it was great. Mom would have loved it.”
Ken and Rena Brakebill had their wedding reception at the original Nakato building on Piedmont Road in 1978, and they’ve remained regulars at the restaurant.
“I’m still married to the same wonderful person, so maybe there was a charm in having it there,” said Ken Brakebill, a retired software designer. “My wife is from Thailand, and we met at Georgia Tech. I was a Southerner, and not very aware of a lot of food. I have to admit, at that time, I wasn’t that crazy about sushi, but I love it now.
“We watched Sachi grow up, from a little child, to now running the place, and she’s doing a great job. Running a restaurant is damn hard work. In this day and age, it’s just really great to have a traditional family restaurant run by the second and third generation.”
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