By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Bush Garden, the first restaurant to have a karaoke bar in the country, has set its sights on a new home — the upcoming Uncle Bob’s Place, at where the former Four Seas Restaurant was located.
The Bush Garden restaurant, one of the oldest in the International District (ID), closed in 2016. Its lounge remains open and is a popular community gathering place. It was also a favorite hangout for the late Bob Santos, a legend in the Asian community, who loved to sing and dance regularly on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Tuesday was called “Bob Santos’ Night” at Bush. His friends, who called the bar “Bob’s After-hours Office,” always knew where and when to find Santos.
The relocation plan was announced recently at InterIm CDA’s 50th Anniversary Gala at the Hilton Embassy Suites. The nonprofit, founded by Santos, seeks to advance social justice and equity for low-income, Asian and Pacific Islander, immigrant and refugee communities. Since Santos’ death in 2016, community groups have tried to create meaningful ways to honor the leader.
InterIm CDA’s new development is at the former Four Seas Restaurant property, located on South King Street. It has dedicated the new eight-story building as Uncle Bob’s Place, with 126 units of affordable housing units and commercial space on the lower level.
James Wong, of Vibrant Cities and the owner the Bush property, calls the development Jasmin. Last year, he offered a spot for Bush Garden at an International Special Review District board meeting in his new development, which includes micro retail space, some affordable housing units, and condos.
A good fit
Pradeepta Upadhyay, executive director of InterIm CDA, said it’s a mutual decision between InterIm and Bush Garden’s owner, Karen Akada Sakata, to bring Bush Garden into Uncle Bob’s Place.
Upadhyay said, “With Bush Gardens, sadly, being displaced from its historic location by the new Jasmine project, we at InterIm are delighted about the prospect of being able to accommodate such a beloved and important legacy business at Uncle Bob’s Place. Uncle Bob was a well-known regular at Bush Gardens …We feel there is no other more appropriate location for Bush Gardens to relocate than to Uncle Bob’s Place, where it will continue its longtime role as a community watering hole and place to find a sense of community and camaraderie.”
Sakata, who has owned the business since 1999, signed a letter of intent. She said it’s a good fit. “Being a part of Uncle Bob’s Place fits so well with Bush Garden’s history and its mission.”
“Interim was going to build a community gathering place for members of the neighborhood to gather, visit, strategize, voice their concerns or anger, make plans,” said Teresita Batayola, ICHS Executive Director and speaker at the InterIm CDA dinner. “It will be an important place also because Karen Akada has decided to locate Bush Garden in the building to be a living legacy business in the Chinatown-International District and be a part of keeping the community solidly grounded in its roots while moving towards its thriving future, community foremost in mind.”
Sakata said she liked how Santos cared for the community. She said Bush Garden “plays a role in the community … it’s a place for some to go back” during good times and bad.
Over the years, people always come back to Bush Garden because they want to visit their friends and Bush Garden staff members, including the karaoke hosts.
“I didn’t want Bush Garden to disappear,” Sakata said. “I don’t want [Bush Garden] to close, I want to keep it going. Like InterIm, Bush Garden connects with people.
How do you keep going? What’s the plan? … in partnership with an organization (InterIm), which is on the same page of those values (of Santos).”
Although Sakata works full-time for the city, her commitment to her business never wavers. She began working part-time for Bush Garden when she was only 15. Over the years, she has seen the growth of the Japanese community and the greater Asian community, through customers coming to the restaurant and the lounge.
Her memories of Santos are still vivid through the 25 songs he often sang, sometimes with her in a duet, and sometimes with his family members and friends.
Some of his favorites included Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, and Nat King Cole.
Sakata loves the stories Santos told the audience after his performances.
“He (Bob) would tell stories that people didn’t know … sometimes, give customers the history of the ID.” Santos was full of charisma and humor, especially onstage, as most people would agree. His charm relaxed those around him and created an atmosphere of being part of the family, according to long-time patrons.
InterIm CDA will manage the housing of Uncle Bob’s Place, while the Chan family, owner of Tai Tung Restaurant and the former Four Seas Restaurant, will manage the commercial space. Evan Chan, who represents the Chan family, said there are still a lot of details to be worked out with Bush Garden. Their talks are in the initial stages.
Bush Garden would be one of the two commercial sites facing King Street South. When asked if Harry Chan, Evan’s dad, wants to open another restaurant in Uncle Bob’s Place, he said he has no plans. “One restaurant (Tai Tung) is enough.”
In about two years, the building will be complete. Imagine what Uncle Bob would say when he sees it from heaven.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.