Closed but not forgotten
This morning, this New Years’ Eve day, I read a blog I read daily (Josh Bernoff’s “Without Bullshit”, look it up, subscribe). This is always a day for reflection and reverie. Today, Josh’s title “The End of the No Name Restaurant” pulled me up short. Do we all have No Name eateries in our past? Is it an urban phenomenon? Are their origins relegated to a simple time in another century, pre-Goggle, where word of mouth was all you ever needed to get on the map? That and incredible food and usually a quirk or three to add essential spice to the heady ambiance of discovery that then leads to familiarity and the raw essence of homey.
As a young man I lived in the beating heart of San Francisco, The Castro, and I thought, as did the masses with whom I cohabitated, that ours was the center of not only the cosmopolitan heartbeat of America’s most cosmopolitan city but the quirky be-all of a neighbor apart. Peppered with 70’s-style hamburger joints, late-night pizzerias, and a sprinkling of all things Chinese, ice cream (Double Rainbow and their Toasted Almond lusciousness) mixed in with every imaginable iteration of gay bar and hideout creation could envision.
Just off Market St., the quintessential Main Street of an urban small town, a block down Church St., one door down from the corner of Church and 15th Streets, was a tiny eatery that was and is still known only as the No Name Sushi Bar. In fact, it had a name, but the backlit marquee had been long broken out, but the lighted frame stood as blank testimony to its very perseverance. It had maybe seven small tables, no large groups…ever. It also had seven bar stools with a skinny aisle behind the bar for service. The entire place was painted a garish peach/salmon/orangish color and sported a unique slanted rack behind the bar on which the clean teacups were placed and slid down to the bottom for reuse. It always struck me as the grown-up version of a wooden marble game that my uncle built for me as a child. Total comfort recall.
The tea, brought automatically with every order, came in small metal pots, brewing as it was set down with an astonishingly heady aroma of Jasmine, herbs, and comfort. It is still the best-tasting tea I have ever had. The “menu” was a mimeographed paper slip with their two dozen offerings segregated into boxes and a space to tick off how many of each you needed. Simple. Quickly prepared. Delicious. Perfect.
In those simpler days, liquor licenses were still hard to come by, a remnant of the payola days of the Barbary Coast bribery schemes. Unsaid by the management, none of whom spoke much, if any, English, was the get-around that only the locals knew. If you ventured into the corner bodega next door, an Iranian-run polyglot of candy, cigarettes, a cooler of beers and a couple gallons of milk, you could purchase quarts of icy-cold Sapporo or Ting Tao beer. The owner would wrap it in a brown bag, twisting the bag around the neck of the bottle in some manner of attempted disguise and then, quietly and without preamble, ease the top almost off with an opener. You were then free to go forth and finish the process when you got to your seat, or maybe while waiting in the ever-present queue that snaked around the corner in front of this same bodega. Locals just knew. Management just ignored; although they did bus the empties away when finished.
This was life in the 1970’s in a small corner of San Francisco. This was our life, our “secret” that was not such a secret but more a cherished get-in-free card that only we knew. “Meet you at No Name at 6!” That was our default sushi code for decades. Life moved on, I moved away but I continued to come back home and every time, like returning locusts in a cycle, I always managed a stop, alone or with some remnant still remaining friends, at No Name Sushi to refresh my soul and recall my life back when.
Years passed and one night my partner and I were patiently waiting in “the line” with our Sapporo, one tapped for the wait in line, another ready to pop when we were finally seated. The crowds in line were different yet amazingly the same. They were generations younger (ugh) but we all still stood pathetically gazing through the steamy glass at the patrons inside mentally willing them to please hurry; eat, swallow, finish, and give us our turn at heaven.
A young 20-something couple next to us noticed our brown bag specials. They asked how that could be? Drinking on the street? Bringing booze into an alcohol-free restaurant?
As I was explaining the protocol to them it became clear that this was their inaugural visit to No Name Sushi. They asked how long it had been here and as I was doing the ciphering in my head, I had one of those moments; those time-stopping, reflexive, AHA moments. I had to explain to them,
“I really have no idea how long the restaurant has been here, but I have been in this line for the better part of 38 years. It has always been the same.” Even the elderly Iranian behind the bodega counter was the same, only older as well. Their amazement was palpable and infectious. We traded city tales, chatting aimlessly until we were next in line and our seats beckoned and our Jasmine tea awaited. As we walked through the door, they asked one more question, “What’s the name of this place, anyway?”
“Why, it’s No Name Sushi, of course!”
Gone now, finally, but forever etched into even my faulty memory.
Nippon Sushi. It had a name. No one ever knew.