Far Bar Looks to the Past to Adapt to COVID-19

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The 1938 Nisei Week Parade makes its way down First Street in Little Tokyo. The Far East Cafe’s chop suey sign remains on the building today, as the business has adjusted to changing times and the pandemic. (Courtesy TOYO MIYATAKE STUDIOS)

By DANIEL CHUNG and MIGUEL TRINIDAD

It’s been nearly six months since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Restaurants have had to adapt to constantly shifting rules involving shutting down and reopening, and surviving amid the related loss in business.

Little Tokyo’s restaurants are taking exhaustive steps to adapt so that they can reopen and continue to provide a sense of community, while ensuring the safety of their customers and employees. One of those restaurants, Far Bar, recently reopened its patio so that customers can dine safely outdoors.(

Far Bar owner Don Tahara has removed seating from its alleyway patio so that social distancing can be maintained for all patrons. Tahara also selected planter boxes and the plants to be brought in to help fill out the empty space and reinforce safe distancing between customers. Hand sanitizer is available at every table and wait staff wear face masks at all times. Refills and new meals are brought out on freshly cleaned dishes to bring cross-contamination down to a minimum. Customers are allowed a single means of entrance and exit. With these changes, Far Bar is following safety precautions mandated by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Tahara also brought out Far Bar’s old partitions, during a brief window in June when restaurants were permitted to reopen their indoor dining areas. Fitting together like pieces of a puzzle, the wood of the partitions wears its scars well. Simple construction and a sturdy design have allowed these pieces to serve for decades before being put in storage. Today the wearing of varnish and the scarring of the wood remind patrons of the history these partitions have seen, and the legacy they represent. These partitions date back to the 1930s, when the restaurant was known as the Far East Café, and was one of several restaurants that served the Cantonese dish chop suey.

“For Nikkei folks during the heyday of Little Tokyo, chop suey and Cantonese food was very popular because it was very tasty, economical, had a wide variety of dishes, and lent itself well to banquets,” said Bill Watanabe, former executive director of Little Tokyo Service Center. Besides the partitions, Far Bar has kept Far East Café’s original neon sign, advertising chop suey to those looking for a flavorful meal for a good value.

Chop suey was also easy-to-share family style, and was therefore a frequent part of banquets for Little Tokyo’s Japanese American community, especially following the release from the camps at the end of World War II. Though the wrongly imprisoned Japanese Americans had their freedom back, the same could not be said for their jobs. The Far East Café, recognizing the Japanese community as friends and family, offered them the opportunity to eat free of charge, and instead accepted payment at a later date whenever possible. This display of generosity cemented the Far East Café as a community pillar until 1994, when it was forced to close down due to damage caused by the Northridge earthquake.

Far Bar has reorganized to comply with all Health Department guidelines. (Photo by Yasmin Harvey Elming)

In recent decades, the demand for chop suey has waned, and is rarely advertised. As a result, many restaurants that once advertised their offerings of chop suey on their front doors have removed their signs, resulting in the Far East Café’s neon sign being potentially one of, if not the last, Chop Suey sign in the United States.

The last 15 years have seen a new lease on life for the Far East Café. Tahara and his business partners sought to honor the original style of food served at the cafe when they reopened the establishment as Far Bar. Without the original recipes, and because of changing times, people had less appetite for chop suey.

When we first opened, the community and my business partners wanted to resurrect the Far East Café menu and its most popular dishes…These dishes were created to satisfy the palates of the Japanese Americans, the Nisei, and Issei…. Unfortunately, we tried to resuscitate it, but without the original recipes, we failed miserably,” Don shared.

The owners shifted from a more traditional restaurant menu to a lounge and bar that serves bar-style appetizers. Many of the classic chop suey dishes are spiritually represented by the offered Asian fusion style food served today. Popular bar bites include Ming’s Wings, Wasabi Fries and Bacon Fried Rice. There’s even a cocktail inspired by the Chop Suey neon sign, “Neon August,” that will be released for Nisei Week 2020.

While the days of chop suey may be gone, Far Bar continues to pay homage to the rich history of Far East Cafe through both its menu and interior design. Far Bar is currently available 4 to 10 p.m.-ish Wednesday through Sunday for both patio dining and takeout.

Little Tokyo small businesses like Far Bar need your help to survive the impacts of COVID-19. To support the continuation and legacy of our vibrant small business community, you can order takeout/delivery, enjoy outdoor dining, shop online or socially distanced in person or donate to the Small Business Relief Fund. For more information on our community Go Fund Me and all the ways to support our family-owned small businesses like Far Bar visit, https://littletokyola.org/gofundme or email [email protected]

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