Greatest, Oldest, Grandmotherly-est

The greatest restaurant in Seattle is the oldest restaurant in Seattle.

Maneki opened around the turn of the last century (the exact year is debatable), supplying the city’s Japanese population with the stuff of lunch counters, family dinners and celebratory feasts back home. It is Seattle’s first sushi bar, for decades the domain of veteran chefs exercising painstaking restraint in presenting the bounty of Northwest waters. It is the only local Japanese restaurant to survive World War II-era internment programs, a happy reminder of dark times. Maneki is part historic monument, part grandma’s kitchen, part culinary laboratory.

You know this before you arrive and yet you’re charmed beyond expectations after you leave, every time.

The storefront restaurant isn’t much to look at, its flat lines and khaki-colored walls as generic as the remodeled storeroom it is. It’s located in the ID on 6th and Jackson, next to a long-shuttered community bathhouse that once served thousands of immigrants living in adjacent tenements, most of which lacked indoor plumbing. Unlike Seattle’s trendy newcomers, it’s economical: You’ll be hard pressed to spend more than $40 a person for a full belly and sake buzz.

It’s a Tuesday night and nine friends and I are here to celebrate my birthday in a tatami room—a semi-private, paper-walled chamber where we will remove our shoes to sit on the floor around a sunken table. We arrive from the dispiriting damp and are greeted at the hostess stand by a tiny Asian-American woman with glasses and curly grey hair. This is Jean. She’s owned Maneki since the ’70s. Despite our 8:30 reservation, Jean tells us to wait; the tatami room isn’t ready yet. Because of her demeanor, we acquiesce, moving a few steps away to the closet-sized nook Maneki calls its bar.

“Hey Mama, how you doing?” a regular greets the woman behind the bar. Mama is tinier and grayer than Jean, a great-grandma perhaps. She was interned during World War II and will talk about it if you ask nicely. She mixes strong cocktails but I order a Sapporo and pour it into small glasses to share.

Once seated, we’re told by the waitress that the birthday person traditionally sits beneath a framed photo of Mt. Fuji. Among the knickknacks spread around the perimeter of the tatami room are an authentic-looking samurai helmet and a wooden bust of Maneki Neko, the famous Japanese good luck cat and restaurant namesake.

A half-dozen servers attend to our table, all women of various ages, including one who is possibly older than the restaurant. In halting English this wrinkled matron manages to slyly tease our enthusiastic, mildly inebriated group.

Ceramic decanters of hot sake arrive alongside tall bottles of Sapporo. From the enormous menu, we call out favorite dishes: ankimo, a sort of oceanic paté of monkfish liver that Maneki rarely serves because it’s hard to find unfrozen, and broiled black cod collar, seared in soy sauce and its own fishy oil. Many off-menu specials—horse mackerel sashimi, fatty tuna—aren’t available because only the day’s freshest fish is used and when it’s gone, it’s gone. (The table gets the last two slices of horse mackerel, nigiri-style, mild and delicious.)

Surprises are in store: A black cod karage special—deep-fried fish fingers, crusty with batter and supremely crunchy, served with a ponzu dipping sauce. From the regular menu, salmon namban, cubed salmon lightly breaded and fried then chilled and served soaked in cold rice wine vinegar. It is substantial, almost steak-like, and, because of its temperature, oddly refreshing. Two orders disappear in minutes.

Standby dishes are handled expertly, too. Pork-filled gyoza are succulent and satisfying. Maguro is cleanly cut and served a proper notch below room temperature. Spicy tuna and spicy salmon rolls are simultaneously rich and delicate, hot and cool. When tempura-fried green tea ice cream arrives we’re almost too full to eat it.

Ninety minutes after sitting down, my friends lace up their shoes and stumble outside into the chill, happy from the meal—and from not having to spend half a paycheck for it. On the way out, I offer Jean warm, sentimental thanks, explaining it’s my second birthday in a row at Maneki. With equal sentimentality, she points to old photos on the wall—the original, pagoda-shaped Maneki restaurant, opened 100 years ago around the corner, and a black-and-white portrait of her late husband.

“Sometimes we have four generations sitting down to eat together,” she says. “That’s my favorite thing.”

Photo by Nate Watters.