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'COVID-19 has changed everything': How Long Island sushi bars are faring post-lockdown

A plate of nigiri sushi on the new

A plate of nigiri sushi on the new outdoor patio at Torigo in Floral Park.  Credit: Newsday/Corin Hirsch

Pre-coronavirus, it was rare to walk into Kotobuki, the Hauppauge sushi restaurant, and snag a table for dinner right away. Instead, prospective diners usually endured a wait in the foyer with other hopefuls.

That scene had shifted dramatically by June 24, the day when Phase 3 indoor dining began on Long Island. Inside Kotobuki that evening, the foyer was empty and the dining room had only two occupied table. Behind the sushi bar, masked chefs were busy slicing and rolling takeout orders, but the chairs in front of the counter had been removed.

“We cannot keep the sushi bar open, because we cannot keep social distancing with the sushi chefs,” said Irene, a manager at Kotobuki in Roslyn who did not give her last name. (Kotobuki also has locations in Babylon and New York City).

Has sitting at a sushi bar become a casualty of this uncertain spring? At least for the time being, yes. While Chinese-food restaurants were one of the first to suffer a dip in business as coronavirus spread in New York, Japanese and sushi restaurants did not go unscathed, and are in the midst of a dynamic but unsettled moment.

Some have closed for good, such as Ginza in Massapequa, where some of the fish was flown in weekly from Tokyo’s Tsukji market. Others have kept their indoor dining rooms closed — places such as Sam’s Sushi Bistro in Farmingville, Koiso in Carle Place, Show Win in Northport, and Arata in Syosset are all still doing takeout only. (At Tokyo Japanese Restaurant in East Northport — whose dining room also remains closed — customers continue to retrieve their no-contact orders via a new double-door wooden box installed in the front door).

At Arata, manager Jefry Lian said the dining room will remain closed for the time being as the restaurant weathers both staffing shortages and evolving safety rules. "We're just trying to comply with regulations because of things we're not sure of," said Lian. "We monitor it every day, because it's not one person's decision — we need to protect all of the guests and all of our staff."

While Arata continues to offer takeout, "it's not compared to what it was before," in terms of volume, he said. "We're sure everything will come back, but for now we want to stay safe, and sushi bars are one of the hardest ones [to reopen]."

At Shiro of Japan in Carle Place, lockdown compelled the restaurant to take a hard pivot: The high-end sushi and hibachi restaurant began to offer takeout for the first time since its founding in 1973. “We’re a huge restaurant that never did takeout, and we had to learn how to do takeout,” said Peter Facibene, who co-owns Shiro with his partner, Hiro Ishikawa. (Ishikawa is a local sushi pioneer who opened one of the island’s first sushi bars, Taiko in Rockville Centre, in 1979). Shiro’s staff also unveiled a brand-new patio. “So we also had to learn how to serve in a parking lot,” Facibene added.

Shiro — which has a busy catering and wholesale arm — has since reopened its massive dining space for Phase 3, including 7- to 8-foot-wide hibachi tables where diners can sit in socially distant clusters. The sushi counter, however, remains closed. “We cannot sit people at the bar,” said Facibene simply, but acknowledged that the unprecedented nature of the last few months has had an unexpected boon — a new audience. “We’ve found we were the only ones open, and so we’ve brought in a lot of new customers,” he said.

Out east, two sushi restaurants are also finding fresh new clientele — Kissaki in Water Mill, where a sushi robot molds rice, and Bamboo in Southampton, where there’s local fluke sushi and a $25 lobster-wasabi roll but still outdoor dining only. “Now that we’re in Phase 3, the inside is open, but we’re in the Hamptons and it’s nice out and people don't want to sit inside anyway,” owner Michael Gluckman told Newsday’s Scott Vogel earlier this week.

That’s also the spirit behind the new back patio at Torigo in Floral Park, which chef-owner Tony San had initially closed for about two months after the state shuttered on-premises dining. “I have never in my life been not working for two months,” said San.

In mid-May, when San reopened Torigo for takeout, he said the phone lines were immediately jammed. “It was crazy on that first day. We were only open from 5 to 8 [p.m.], and at 6:45 p.m., I said, ‘We cannot take any more orders,’” he reported. At the same time, San was dealing with interruptions in his usual fish supply from Spain, California and Japan, some of which have since righted themselves. “We are getting more and more,” said the chef, though still delivered once a week, on Thursdays.

In June, San's neighbors gave him the green light to use a portion of the parking lot behind the restaurant for an outdoor patio of about a half-dozen tables, topped by umbrellas and hemmed in by a small, white picket fence. It’s a charming spot — one of many that have popped up throughout Floral Park — but San could only promise it would be around for this summer.

“COVID-19 has changed everything,” he said. “We’re just taking it one step at a time.”

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