The Maneki Adventure

Blindsided by specials and bushwhacked by blue sprat at Seattle's oldest, most idiosyncratic sushi den.

On Maneki’s menu, the blue fin sashimi is called “King of Tuna”—which, if I ever start my own punk band, is now in the running for its name. It’s also something I’m going to start listing on my résumé: Line cook, sous, executive chef, food writer . . . King of Tuna.

Under “Other Delights” are Japanese croquettes made of potato, pork, and onion, breaded in panko and fried. Twice running, I will remind myself to order the croquettes just to see what Japanese cooks in a Japanese kitchen with a hundred years of history behind it will do with a an old canon standard so European. Twice running, I’ll completely forget, blindsided by the day’s specials written out in careful longhand on sheets of paper taped to the walls, by the flux of the crowds that come and go in incomprehensible waves, crashing on a nearly empty floor that can go from quiet to riot within a minute.

I’ll be bushwhacked by blue sprat brought from Kyushu, salt mackerel in ponzu sauce, fried whole fish, stiff and curled like parentheses, staring up at me with hot, white eyes still steaming; come in for hamachi don and end up sucker-punched by a delicate bowl of mozuku (kelp and sliced cucumber, one of the thousand little dishes at Maneki marinated in vinegar) or by spider rolls with the crab fried too hard and too long, sticking out of the top of my maki like a gnarled little monkey hand.

The variety at Maneki is stunning, overwhelming. The pure number of little dishes drowns me every time. The menu is ostensibly arranged by appetizers, entrées, traditional plates, noodles, sushi and sashimi, maki, and full dinners (including an anachronistic steak dinner, done teriyaki-style or rubbed with salt, served with tempura), but really it isn’t. That is an imposed form, meaningless in execution, meant only to warp this cavalcade of snacks into some figure more understandable to those approaching it as a ritualized Western dinner with a certain beginning and recognizable end.

But this isn’t dinner; this is something else entirely. And when, sitting at my small table near the bar full of drunken Japanese businessmen, pulling at the label of my Sapporo, I listen in on the conversation at the next table, where a small group of Asian 20-somethings are explaining to one of their recently arrived friends what coffee is and how people drink it, I realize that it isn’t just dinner that’s different here, but everything.

“Maneki? Oh, you’ve got to go to Maneki,” one of my friends told me.

I’d been in the city two days, maybe three. I’d spent the previous day lost for more than an hour just trying to make my way home from the office, and still couldn’t find a sandwich without help. Another friend—a trusted source—fairly drooled over memories so fresh they were still shining: ozen dinners and futomaki, yakitori and bowls of noodles slurped through clouds of tofu. “I’ve been there, I don’t know…50 times?” she said. “I’d eat there every day if I could.”

Maneki opened in 1904 at Sixth Avenue and Main Street, in a three-story building that looked like a Japanese castle. A hundred years ago, it was turning 500 customers a night on the floor, in the tatami rooms, and at the bar—serving the Japanese community centered in that neighborhood, catering their weddings and funerals and feeding them on Tuesday nights when no one felt like making the soba or shishamo themselves.

World War II and the internment of Japanese-Americans put a gap in Maneki’s epic run. The building that had housed it for 40 years was ransacked and wrecked by assholes, the customers carted off to camps. The space where it operates now was used as storage for the belongings of many of those who were interned. When they came home, they all needed their stuff back. And when the space was finally emptied (somewhere around 1946), Maneki was reborn there, within walking distance of the ruined original, its walls covered with Japanese art, the paper screens of the tatami rooms erected, the bar built, the dozens of maneki niko good-luck cats finding homes on every bit of horizontal space.

The place fairly sweats history. For a restaurant in the United States, 100 years is beyond venerable. A century of service elevates a place into a tier where there simply is not much company. Maneki has had such a run, in fact, that in 2008 it was given a James Beard Award as one of America’s Classics, putting it in a class with places like the Tadich Grill in San Francisco, the original Stroud’s in Kansas City, Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn, and Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, Miss., which is one of my favorite restaurants on the planet (for weird reasons which have no bearing here). My first night at Maneki, I was actually seated facing that award—nicely framed and hung high on the wall near the entrance to the right-hand dining room, Beard’s enormous Uncle Fester–looking head (embossed onto every medal) grinning down on all the happy people arrayed below.

I ate yakitori that night; steamed and chilled monkfish liver—ankimo, an acquired taste I haven’t yet totally acquired, the texture of it in your mouth like having grown a small, cold second tongue—over shredded daikon in a bittersweet ponzu sauce; simple miso soup and collar of black cod, brushed in miso and broiled. I ordered it mostly because the menu described it as “Sailor’s Delight!”, and I am just a willing sucker for that kind of hyperbole. It gets me every time.

My second time through, it was shiro-maguro tataki—a patty of raw tuna, diced fine like a tartare, folded with bits of ginger, sprinkled with slivers of green onion, and served over a bed of daikon. I followed that with tea, beer, and a small bowl of mandolin-sliced cucumber and tiny rock shrimp in vinegar, which was delicious and exactly what I wanted even if now I can’t quite recall what it was called. The salmon namban is chunks of salmon floured, fried, and soaked down in more vinegar with onions and slices of lemon. One bite was great, two OK. By the time I was halfway through the plate, it was like eating fish in a sauce of lemon-scented furniture polish, and I was just looking for places to hide all the pieces I hadn’t touched.

The kitchen was out of geoduck, so my plan for eating bata-yaki (basically geoduck and mushrooms, sautéed together in butter and spiced with chili powder) was out, and I turned instead to the sushi offerings, going for egg tamago and tekka maki because, after years of eating sushi, I have determined that these two simple, cardinal rolls are the best way to judge the skills of the rollers behind any bar. Both were excellent in flavor, the tuna generously cut (not tail scraps, but actual loin meat), the tamago well-folded and just barely sweet. Both rolls, though, were rather loosely packed and tended to fall to pieces as soon as I touched them.

Unsurprisingly, this same description held for every other roll I tried. In the end, I just ate with my fingers, and felt not the least bit self-conscious about it. By my third night, I already knew my favorites, and lounged at the back of the room with a menu before me, piecing together wild, directionless flights of plates: sea kelp in sweet sake and soy sauce, blue sprat, negi toro over loose handrolls of perfect rice, tempura this-and-that.

There is this notion among those who aren’t regulars at Maneki that getting a table here is hard or complicated or involves some kind of trickery. Those people are idiots.

Getting a table at Maneki isn’t any of those things. It’s just different. Like the meal and the menu, they have a system that’s something like what Americans are used to when it comes to making reservations, but also completely dissimilar.

Maneki does not take reservations for the normal dining room. For the tatami rooms, however, it does. And I still haven’t figured out how the bar works. But for the normal dining room, it has a waiting list of sorts—a kind of first call/eventually served arrangement that is one part odds-making and one part dining-room management. It is a process that, to those accustomed to getting exactly what they want precisely when they want it, can be maddening.

That said, it is also fairly simple. It works like this: Decide you want to go to Maneki. Decide how many people you want to share dinner with. (I go alone because I don’t like sharing and am as territorial as an incumbent governor when it comes to sushi.)

Next, on the day you wish to dine, call Maneki. Don’t ask if they take reservations. Don’t be demanding. Don’t assume you’ll be able to eat at precisely the time you’d like to eat. Merely say something along the lines of “I’d like to have dinner tonight and I was wondering if you had any tables available.”

If there are, the hostess will say so and ask what time you’d like to eat. Say 7 p.m. She’ll apologize and say that there are no tables available at 7 p.m. She will then suggest a time either very early or very late. Thus the negotiations begin.

Every time I ate at Maneki, I did so late—after 9 p.m., at a place where the kitchen takes last orders at 10:15 with the precision of a bartender announcing last call. This was just fine with me. And I was certainly never lonely.

Once you and the hostess have agreed on a time, understand that this is merely an approximation of when you might be seated. Show up early and you might get lucky. Show up on time and you might be asked to wait—even though the floor appears only half-committed—because Maneki both holds tables for regulars and attempts to manage the flow of orders to the kitchen by not booking the entire floor during prime time. The hostess knows what she has on the books. She knows how the kitchen is operating on any given night.

And while it might seem like cruelty to make a hungry party stand by while half the seats in the dining room are going unused, trust that it is in your best interest simply to roll with it. Plates are served here that you can’t get anywhere else in the city, certain preparations that this kitchen has been practicing for a century. So shut up, smile, and wait. Or go around the corner for a cup of coffee or something. Just don’t make a fuss.

Remember, this restaurant has been serving food longer than you have been breathing. While not every plate that comes from the kitchen is perfect, a lot of them are very, very good. And every night here is a new opportunity—not only for dinner, but for an adventure.