The Mavens of Maneki

Even professional drinkers play favorites.

Ask me to name my favorite bar and you will get dead silence. I abhor habit, but I do harbor great affection for a few hangs around town, places where I always feel comfortable. One of my much-loved bars sports a mere 10 stools and one table, uses neon-hued sweet-and-sour mix, and lays claim to the oldest bartenders in town. I go to Maneki in the International District for the human theater, the incredible food, and the safety of a bygone time when people went to bars to drink alone with poise and be cared for by their bartender. (It’s all in the name: “tender.”) Plus, my two favorite bartenders in the world are found here.

When I enter Seattle’s oldest Japanese restaurant, the anxiety always comes on. Will I get a stool or cause a ruckus? Rarely am I ever turned away, but I have been greeted with “How many?” I know the only correct answers are “one” or “two.” Even though four bar stools may be empty next to you, they are probably reserved, and will continue to be so for the next 90 minutes. (Do yourself a favor and don’t ask about them.) The next question you hear, while the bartender silently judges you, will be “Are you eating?” The only answer is yes.

While some bartenders flit around from bar to bar, counting their tenure in months or years, Yoko and Fusae (aka “Mom”) have clocked decades at Maneki—as in, longer than I’ve been alive. Yoko and Fusae handle the bar and restaurant drinks at their own deft pace, and bar customers come first. They know nothing of flair, care nothing for trends or signature cocktails, and pour some of the stiffest drinks in town. They tend. Their appeal is a mother’s comfort: Sweet, but all business, they politely ignore conversations and monitor drink levels studiously. All food orders are taken by waiters who return surprisingly fast with the goods.

Once you sit down, you better keep up. Pick your drinks and get a food order in, pronto. If you dilly-dally, you’re likely to be reminded to order when another one or two people come in and eye your spot. Keep up the eating and drinking and you’re welcome to stay at the bar, but it is no place to nurse. I find this unwritten—but not always unspoken—contract comforting and fair. If you really want to score points with Yoko and Mom, stretch your repertoire and order off the Post-Its on the wall. They will smile and “oh” like a parent praising a child for using a new word. Maneki has some of the most righteous $7 salads in town, and the sashimi specials are ridiculous. Most recently, for example, I had split, semi-dried, and broiled Spanish mackerel. Like buttah.

It never fails that I walk in to find Yoko or Mom being chatted up by some Uptight Seattleite jawing about his most recent trip to Japan and whipping out his best Nihon phrases. I’ve learned over the years that this species of single male is quite harmless. He is hunting—pining, actually—for a willowy Japanese girl to complete the fetish. If ever any of these men gets too forward, though, Yoko or Mom promptly scolds him.

Maybe I just hate chitchat, maybe I spent too much time on the other side of the bar, but I adore the refreshingly by-the-book service and tending that accompanies Maneki’s out-of-this-world comfort food. It’s no coincidence that it is the first place I run to when I’m missing home—and Mom.