By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Bush Garden Restaurant, once a hangout for the powerful, will close after operating for over 60 years in Chinatown. Owners Karen and Masaharu Sadata confirmed that its last day will be Oct. 29. Bush’s popular karaoke bar will remain open daily in the evening.
“It’s a relief,” said Karen Sadata. Her husband has been working seven days a week since he took over the restaurant in 1997.
“I am happy that he can take a break. It’s time. It’s 24/7 for us. People are happy that the bar will remain open. ([n a way], Bush Garden still continues, we are not gone completely. We will still serve some food, like appetizers, in the bar.”
Although Karen said she doesn’t think much about the future, “everyone is getting old,” she said. If she can make the bar profitable, she will keep it going.
“This place is like a home to many,” said Sadata. “They come and meet people. It’s like a family.” She and Masa, as she calls him, actually met at Bush Garden, while they were both employees working under the original owners, the Sekos.
“Some people have been dining here regularly, and they have asked where they are going to go (from now on).” She cited examples of long-time customers who dined at Bush Garden every Saturday. The late political guru Ruth Woo used to have a regular spot at the restaurant, wheeling and dealing with influential politicians.
Hostesses recalled that Sen. Maria Cantwell, and former governors Mike Lowry and Gary Locke, used to visit the restaurant. The late Bob Santos, a community leader and activist, was a regular karaoke performer, packing the bar every Tuesday with friends, for decades.
Joan Seko, the original owner, said the building used to be the Tokyo Club, a gambling house owned by a Japanese gangster who had returned to Japan before they took over the property. Her father-in-law bought the building and invited her late husband Roy and her to run the restaurant.
The Sekos not only celebrated their wedding reception at the restaurant on Bush Garden’s first day of business in 1957, they also lived on the third floor for 10 years.
She credited Roy’s father for cutting holes on the floor in the tatami room, so American diners could hang their legs and not have to sit Japanese-style.
Seko was also proud that in the 1970s, Bush Garden and 11 other prominent restaurants, including Canlis and Ivar’s, gathered together to start their own credit cards, since American Express charged way too much.
Besides being the largest Japanese restaurant in the 1960s, housing 450 guests with 40 tatami rooms on the two floors, Seko said it was also the first restaurant in the country to have karaoke in the 1970s.
Seko planned to write a book about all the interesting characters in the restaurant, including Japanese war brides who worked as waitresses. Seko said the war brides didn’t mind wearing kimonos while serving customers, because they were used to wearing them.
Hard to compete
Seko said she feels sad that the restaurant is closing. “We have to go with the modern times. We can’t preserve everything. And the building isn’t a historical site.”
However, she is happy the Sadatas will keep the bar open. Seko said Karen likes to socialize.
In the old days, Seko recalled how Bush gave tours to school kids and treats like candy and fortune cookies. “When they went home, they would tell their parents, ‘I want to eat at Bush Garden,’” she said. “So the parents would bring their kids to eat, and when their kids grew up, those kids would bring their kids in.”
But people stopped coming when fast food became popular in the 1980s, Seko said.
Despite being the only Japanese restaurant on Maynard Ave. S., the only one with free parking and reasonably-priced food, it couldn’t compete with six other restaurants and a café on the same street. Bush hasn’t updated its dark interior décor in 20 years. Meanwhile, the new, trendy, brightly-lit Japanese restaurants with modern designs, continue to develop and prosper outside of the International District and on the Eastside.
The new owner
Solterra, a real estate development company, bought the property in January.
President James Wong said, “Having been raised in Beacon Hill and the Seattle area, I am happy to support the community and Bush Garden. Whatever we can do. If lowering the rent can help keep the bar open and be profitable, we are happy to help out. We are committed to the vibrancy of the community.” Wong said he has always dreamed about having an office in the ID. Recently, he remodeled the second floor of the Bush building and now has a good sized office. He has also renovated the warehouse next door, part of the 120-square-foot by 60-square-foot property. It’s now ready to rent out as office space. As to the future plans of the Bush property, Wong said without giving any specifics, “I want to enhance the property.”
While the Northwest Asian Weekly was there, Suzee Vishop, a former bar hostess, sat at the bar and employee Shirley Jorgensen, reminisced about the past — especially how beautiful the restaurant once was, the excitement of the Lion Club’s members during its annual Las Vegas night, customers wearing their special kimonos, and sounds of karaoke. What precious memories!
Bush Garden bar hours: 5 p.m.–1:30 a.m. daily.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.