When the pioneering Japanese restaurant KuraBarn closed in October, a few regulars couldn’t quite keep their composure, and understandably so: The Huntington restaurant had been serving gyoza and sushi since 1980. "We had so many customers who had been coming 30, 40 years, and they were bawling their eyes out," said Risa Morimoto, daughter of original owners Nori and Noriko Morimoto. "It was incredible to see my parents’ legacy."
After marrying in Japan and emigrating to New York City in the 1960s — where Nori pursued a career as a graphic artist — Nori and Noriko opened KuraBarn in 1975, when there was nary a Japanese restaurant within driving distance.
At first, the couple sold crafts from Japan and Europe. Gradually, they segued to food items and cooking lessons. "People were like, ‘you should really open a restaurant,’" said Risa. "It happened organically."
In 1980, when KuraBarn transitioned into a full-service Japanese restaurant, Long Island was almost completely sushi-less. The couple divided up the labor, with Nori doing the cooking and Noriko greeting customers. "She would get dressed up in a kimono every night, and customers knew she would take their kids and watch them so they could have a nice, peaceful dinner," Risa said. "She was also very much the business mind behind the business."
As restaurants came and went and sushi became ubiquitous on Long Island, KuraBarn persisted, a homey hangout where the food was "not about anything flashy, just a really authentic meal," Risa said. She and her siblings grew up in the restaurant. "We were making gyoza at 7, 8 years old, and of course working in the restaurant was our rite of passage." Risa herself worked there until her 20s, and is now a filmmaker.
Noriko Morimoto had a stroke in 2001, and in 2007, the Morimotos’ cousins, Makoto and Ayano Yamada, became KuraBarn’s owners. Makoto was a trained sushi chef, and various family members continued to work in the restaurant.
In 2019, Noriko Morimoto passed away, 60 years after she and Nori had married. When COVID-19 upended the industry in 2020, it not only shuttered KuraBarn for over a year, but also took Nori Morimoto's life in April of 2020. "It was definitely a crazy time for us as a family," said Risa .
KuraBarn pivoted to takeout during the pandemic, and although the dining room reopened in May — only on weekends — by this fall, KuraBarn had reached its last act. "We felt like it was time to really move on," Risa said, noting that her cousins had been working at the restaurant for 40 years, and wanted to start retirement. "I’m just so grateful that we weren’t taken out by COVID and we could go on our own terms."