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Once-swanky Bush Garden: a symbol of a bygone era

Eating on the Edge: In the 1960s, the Chinatown restaurant's exotic food and glamorous setting attracted corporate titans and celebrities like Joe DiMaggio. Now it's quiet and worn, losing business to the suburbs and other competitors.

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A souvenir postcard from 1960 shows Bush Garden in its heyday.

Eating on the Edge: In the 1960s, the Chinatown restaurant's exotic food and glamorous setting attracted corporate titans and celebrities like Joe DiMaggio. Now it's quiet and worn, losing business to the suburbs and other competitors.

In the 1960s, going out to a fancy restaurant in Seattle meant eating at one of a handful of places, like Canlis, Rosellini’s, Trader Vic’s and, in Chinatown, Roy Seko’s Japanese restaurant, Bush Garden.

Perhaps the most exotic of the bunch, Bush Garden, on Maynard Avenue South, was created to simulate an excursion to Japan, with bonsai trees, rice-paper screens, bamboo, rockery, ice carvings, statues, and Japanese waitresses — a few were actually of Korean descent — who wore kimonos and served customers in dining rooms covered with tatami mats. The menu consisted mostly of tempura, teriyaki and sukiyaki, the stew which then was synonymous with Japanese food. Sushi was not even on the radar of American diners.

By today’s standards, Bush Garden’s old menu would seem tame, even a little inauthentic, and the décor a caricature of Japanese culture. But 50 years ago, going out to eat at Bush Garden was one of the most glamorous things you could do in Seattle. Even with room for 500 diners, reservations were difficult to get and waits could be long. When dining, men were expected to wear suits and ties. Telephones were put in each of the 40 private dining rooms so that business could be conducted over long meals. It was that kind of place.

Captains of industry and pillars of the community dined there. So did movie stars, professional athletes, and even members of Japan’s royal family. It  also was a gathering place for the Japanese-American community in Seattle. Special occasions were celebrated there. Boys brought their prom dates to Bush Garden.

Of those mid-20th-century fancy restaurants, only Canlis has survived intact, still an esteemed institution, run by the same family. Rosellini’s two restaurants are gone, surviving only symbolically as the name of a private dining room in the El Gaucho restaurant in Belltown. Trader Vic’s enjoys kitsch status and is around in other cities but not Seattle.

Roy and Joan Seko sold Bush Garden in 1996, long after its heyday. (Roy died of cancer in 2004.) It remains open in the same location, with the same name but under new owners, Masaharu and Karen Sakata. Karen practically grew up in the restaurant, working for the Sekos as a waitress in high school in the 1970s. Many of the Japanese-American students at Franklin, Garfield, and Cleveland High School worked at the restaurant at one time or another.

The second floor, where the private rooms were located, is closed off. Most of the furnishings have been removed, Karen Sakata said. The darkened lobby is not the grand entrance it once was, although many of the props are still there collecting dust, such as the torii, the Japanese-style gate often found at the entrance to Shinto shrines. Water no longer flows over the artificial waterfall or gathers in the artificial river that flows beneath the toy footbridge.

The dining room, a row of booths next to the sushi bar, was empty the evening I dined there, although a small group of people carried on in the bar on the other side of the restaurant. Liquor and karaoke are the main draw these days. Sakata said Bush Garden was the first restaurant in the U.S. to offer karaoke back in the 1970s.

The restaurant features shabu-shabu (Japanese hot pot) and serves soba, tempura, robata, and sushi, all of which are passable if not spectacular. Bush Garden’s food, in a city now full of Japanese restaurants, no longer stands out. To drum up business, the Sakatas created a happy-hour menu of $3 appetizers like chicken karaage, tempura shrimp, salmon teriyaki, and tonkatsu pork.

Bush Garden still serves the dish that made it famous, sukiyaki ($7 during happy hour), although it is a far cry from the original. The broth is intensely sweet with a hint of Chinese five spice; Bush Garden’s original sukiyaki broth was a simple, traditional concoction of soy sauce and rice wine.

Business, Karen said, could be better. Far from fancy, the dining room and bar look worse for wear. The crowds are nowhere near what they used to be decades ago. The restaurant culture in general has changed. So has the community around the restaurant, and the city itself. Dense, vital, Asian-American communities thrive in suburbs like Lynnwood, Renton, and Bellevue, as do some of its best restaurants, like Bellevue’s Din Tai Fung (featured last week). Upscale, sophisticated, busy, but camped far from the traditional center of Asian-American life in Seattle, Din Tai Fung is many of the things Bush Garden used to be.

As Seattle’s suburbs ascended, the old neighborhood around Bush Garden declined. The slide was long in the making, done in by suburban flight, urban decay, and a reputation, some say undeserved, for violence due in part to the 1983 Wah Mee Massacre, in which three men gunned down and killed 13 people in a local gambling club.

Bush Garden opened in its current location on June 9, 1957, four years after outgrowing the original restaurant a few blocks away. Roy and Joan got married the day the restaurant opened and had their wedding banquet in the new restaurant. The family purchased the building and the parking lot across the street, and for a time lived in an apartment above the restaurant.

Roy opened the restaurant with his father Kaichi Seko, who was born in Japan. (Roy was born in Seattle.) All the Sekos were sent to internment camps during World War II. Kaichi, a natural tinkerer, inventor, and a member of several Japanese clubs, was deemed a more serious threat and held separately from his family, which was sent to Minidoka in Idaho.

After the war, Roy studied architecture at the University of Washington. After a stint in the military, Roy became a draftsman for Boeing and later opened a woodworking shop with his brother Robert. They specialized in making Japanese shoji screens, a convenient skill when it came time to open the restaurant.

Roy and his brother built most of the fixtures and furniture for the restaurant — an elaborate mockup of a quaint Japanese village, with wood carvings, curved roof tiles, lanterns, and paneled ceilings. They also made all the chairs for the restaurant, using wooden pegs rather than nails to join the pieces.

In its prime, Bush Garden employed five hostesses, four bartenders, 23 waitresses, and a photographer who took Polaroid photos of customers. The deluxe sukiyaki dinner, one of nine the restaurant served, included beef sukiyaki cooked at the table with tofu, bamboo shoots, and yam noodles. Tempura prawns and chicken teriyaki were served on the side. Every dinner came with sunomono (cucumber vinegar salad), gomae (spinach sesame salad), and shredded crab, an exotic combination for 1960s Seattle. No dinner cost more than $4.75.

The family enterprise also included a catering service that provided in-flight meals for first-class passengers flying from Seattle to Tokyo on Japan Airlines, as well as United and Northwest. With business partners, the Sekos also opened Bush Garden restaurants in downtown San Francisco and Portland in 1960 (they sold their interest in those restaurants long ago).

Baseball great Joe DiMaggio, actress Shirley MacLaine, singer Vic Damone, and actor David Janssen all ate at Bush Garden. Richard Nixon made plans to eat there, but his Secret Service team determined there were too many places to hide in the restaurant for it to be safe for the president, Joan Seko said. The Sekos were also host to more modest affairs. Churches held banquets at Bush Garden; schools brought tour groups there for lunch.

The Sekos held on to their Seattle restaurant long after its prime, even though friends and colleagues advised them to move it to Bellevue, where the couple resided. (Joan, 74, has lived in Bellevue for 47 years.)

“We kept the place open more for the employees than for ourselves,” Joan said. “It was getting hard to keep it up. We weren’t getting many customers anymore.”

Eventually, the Sekos sold the building and the lot to husband and wife George Liu and Assunta Ng, publisher of the Northwest Asian Weekly. The Sekos auctioned most of the contents of the restaurant. None of their five children was interested in running the family business. The Sekos’ oldest son, Greg, briefly served as Bush Garden’s assistant manager, but later went to work in the computer industry. Owning a restaurant was never good for family life, Joan said. Roy spent far more time at the restaurant than at home.

While proud of what she and her husband had accomplished, Joan said she was relieved when they sold the restaurant. Because its name lived on, however, she remained emotionally attached to it, even a little responsible for its fate. It pained her a little, she said, when people would ask, “Wow, what happened to your restaurant?” Many assumed the Sekos still ran it. Joan once cleaned the bathroom while eating there even though she was no longer its owner, just a customer.

A few regulars still frequent Bush Garden, clinging to old habits. If you go there, you might still see someone you know, said Ron Chew, the former director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum. Chew, who now runs his own consulting company as well as the International Community Health Services Foundation, also grew up in a restaurant family. His father was the head waiter at the Hong Kong restaurant, which like so many of its day, is no longer open. Chew bused tables there starting at age 13 until he finished college.

The old places, like the China Gate, the Four Seas, Tai Tung, and Bush Garden, were places to gather as much as places to eat. Before the advent of social media, keeping up friendships required actual socializing.

“They were places to linger in,” Chew said, “places you went to see who else was there. They were places you could drop off messages for folks, a place to see people you haven’t seen for a while.”

If you go: Bush Garden Restaurant, 614 Maynard Ave. S., Seattle, 206-682-6830. Open Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner, with a mid-afternoon break. Open seven days a week in the bar. Details available online.

  

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Once-swanky Bush Garden: a symbol of a bygone era