Sawtelle Japantown Meets Outdoor Dining Challenge

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Patrons enjoy al fresco dining at Tsujita LA Artisan Noodles in Sawtelle Japantown. (Photo by ELLEN ENDO)

By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

Hungry patrons were beginning to roam Sawtelle Boulevard’s ramen row with designs on the perfect noodle. It’s 5 p.m. on a typically slow Monday, but by all indications it looks as if business this evening is going to be brisk.

Strolling the neighborhood, it’s immediately evident that nearly every restaurant is open. What is more noticeable is that many are offering the one thing we all took for granted pre-pandemic: table service.

How is this possible in the age of COVID-19?

In Sawtelle Japantown, larger restaurants like Tsujita, Muragame Udon, and Killer Noodle have patios and were able to add more tables by repurposing sidewalk space to wrap around their brick-and-mortar locations.

For smaller venues, like Manpuku barbecue, which is located in a strip mall at the south end of Sawtelle, the transition to **al fresco** dining was more challenging. Undaunted, the Manpuku staff set up tables and a pop-up shelter in the parking area, added tablecloths and flower vases. Suddenly, hybrid sit-down dining and social distancing were the new normal.

Tempura House opted for patio chairs and umbrellas. Other places followed suit and were able to offer outdoor table service while observing social distancing, face covering, and no-touch guidelines.

The story repeats all along the boulevard as restaurant operators work to keep their kitchens working, and gift and clothing shops open their doors while adhering to city regulations.

Tables set up for outdoor dining at Chinchikurin Okonomiyaki. (Photo by ELLEN ENDO)

For decades, it was largely accepted that San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles were the “three remaining historic Japantowns.” Yet, Sawtelle’s origins date back to around 1910 when the first immigrants began to settle in California and housing covenants prevented them from living in other parts of the city. Many young immigrants worked as gardeners, providing services for wealthy homeowners in Beverly Hills, Bel Air, and Westwood.

By 1941, there was a total of 26 nurseries along Sawtelle, which was also the site of florists and boarding houses. Although property values have markedly increased and many of the original families have moved out of the area, there still remains a core community of Japanese Americans.

The oldest existing business in Sawtelle is the three-generation Hashimoto Nursery, established in 1928 as O.K. Nursery by the four Hashimoto brothers. Today, the Hashimoto Nursery is still family-owned and operated. Also still in existence on Sawtelle is the Yamaguchi Bonsai Nursery, founded by George Yamaguchi in 1949.

In 2015, a movement led by West L.A. community leaders resulted in recognition by the Los Angeles City Council and Councilmember Mike Bonin, officially designating “Sawtelle Japantown.”

In recent years, Sawtelle businesses, much like Little Tokyo, San Francisco, and San Jose, have enjoyed increased popularity, especially among tourists and young adults. Despite the uncertainty of the past four months, Sawtelle businesses stand ready to accommodate their customers, even if it means setting up tables in a parking lot.

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