In 2022, Eater shines a light on some of Atlanta’s oldest restaurants and food institutions through a series of photo essays, profiles and personal stories. The restaurants featured this year are a mix of longtime familiar favorites and venerable lesser-known establishments serving a wide variety of cuisines and communities in Atlanta and the surrounding metro area. These restaurants serve as the staple of Atlanta’s culinary scene and continue to stand the test of time here.
Located on Cheshire Bridge Road, Nakato is considered the oldest Japanese restaurant in Atlanta. Inaugurated in 1972, this year marks its 50th anniversary. The family business was once an unofficial ambassador to Japan for Georgia, helping Japanese businesses open up in the state during Jimmy Carter’s time as governor. Now a third-generation owner, Nakato continues his role as an ambassador, adapting a family heritage and commitment to Japanese hospitality in Atlanta for the 21st century.
At 13, Sachiyo “Sachi” Nakato Takahara was already helping out on Friday and Saturday nights at her family’s Japanese restaurant, Nakato. She loved the energy of those rush hours at the restaurant and relied on the adrenaline rush she felt from always being on her toes. Two waiters noticed one evening, each giving her a dollar in the kitchen after service.
That first vivid memory of working at Nakato has stayed with Takahara, even after 17 years of owning and operating the restaurant her grandmother founded in 1972. She is now the third generation of the family to run Nakato, who during five decades in Atlanta has both adjusted and preserved elements of the restaurant to continue the company’s growth and secure its future.
Takahara’s grandmother, Tetsuko Nakato, opened the restaurant in Atlanta in part because of the Southern hospitality she experienced here when visiting the United States. It was during Jimmy Carter’s governorship in the 1970s when the Nakato family was called upon to help attract Japanese businesses to Georgia. Carter launched a commercial and tourist outpost in Japan and established a Japanese consulate in Atlanta. According to Tahakara, he invited the Nakato family to the governor’s mansion to perform a traditional Japanese tea ceremony as a cultural exchange. The Carters, along with their young daughter Amy, also dined at the restaurant.
Although the circumstances surrounding Nakato’s founding presented an opportunity, its timing came with unique challenges. Back when the restaurant first opened in Atlanta, it was hard to find ingredients that were integral to traditional Japanese cuisine. Even more difficult was finding Japanese-trained chefs who could properly prepare these dishes. The family invited a team of Japanese chefs to work at Nakato who applied the necessary skills and techniques using available ingredients found in Georgia. Some of these chefs went on to open their own restaurants, including Hashiguchi in Marietta and Kobe Steakhouse in Atlanta, ultimately helping to grow the Japanese food scene here.
When Takahara’s mother, Hiroe Nakato, took over the business, her goal was to further develop Nakato, and the 1996 Summer Olympics presented another unique opportunity for the family, as the eyes of the world turned. to Atlanta. Hiroe Nakato, along with her husband Kiyo Takahara, hired a certified architect and carpenter to work on the renovation and construction of Japanese temples to create the restaurant’s traditional tatami rooms. They also added a Japanese Tea Room, where the restaurant hosts weekly tea ceremony classes and learnings.
As Nakato has continued to evolve over the years, Takahara says, so have Atlanta diners’ palates.
“My mom always jokes that sushi was considered bait in this part of the country in the 70s. It’s been a long road,” she says.
Today, the restaurant receives its fish directly from Japan several times a week. People who first gravitated to sushi rolls in the 1970s and 1980s now expect more variety on the menu, including sashimi, tempura, and gindara grilled fish packed into a single entree. Under Takahara, the restaurant began offering sake and sake pairing dinners led by one of the staff’s certified sake advisors.
But, like all restaurants, Nakato has had to adapt to an increasingly digital landscape and a rapidly growing number of tech-savvy diners; much of this adaptation occurred during Takahara’s tenure. It swapped the physical book of written reservations for OpenTable, replaced print ads with digital space, and started using third-party delivery services for online orders.
“My parents’ generation and my grandmother’s generation [are] immigrant backgrounds, so they try to… do something good, over and over and over again,” Takahara says. “But for me it was how I could take it to the next level where it’s the digital age and [there’s] technology that we have to implement.
During the pandemic, Takahara finds herself again adapting to changes in people’s expectations, such as wanting more transparency in menus and an authentic dining experience. Atlanta diners, she says, now want to know where their food comes from and how it’s prepared, a new and modern demand that’s driving Takahara to put more emphasis on sourcing ingredients.
For Takahara, being the third generation owner of Nakato presents both a challenge and an opportunity to translate Japanese culture and traditions as well as the work of past generations in new ways. With fewer obstacles to overcome than the family that preceded her, including language and technology, Takahara says she acts as a “cultural liaison” for Nakato, helping people understand and connect with traditional Japanese cuisine and culture in the restaurant.
Something that hasn’t changed in the five decades since Takahara’s grandmother opened Nakato is the restaurant’s commitment to “omotenashi,” a Japanese word that loosely translates to hospitality. It’s the driving force behind the restaurant, says Takahara.
“I remember my dad standing in the reception area and always giving a big welcome and a handshake to every guest that came in,” Takahara says. “This [hospitality] has constantly been ingrained in me through my parents’ generation and hearing stories about my grandmother.
Like her parents and grandmother, Takahara prioritizes this style of hospitality at Nakato, training staff to identify and anticipate needs, such as quickly getting out the till when parents struggle with restless children at home. end of a meal or turn a guest’s shoes the right way round. around the tatami room so they can easily put them on before leaving. Takahara says she is also trying to extend omotenashi to her employees, some of whom have worked at Nakato for 25 years.
Takahara believes that a fiery commitment to Japanese hospitality, along with Nakato’s positioning as a “one-stop Japanese restaurant”, offering everything from teppanyaki to sushi, has helped establish a loyal clientele for Nakato throughout its five decades of activity. This loyalty has also helped Nakato and his staff endure some of the toughest months in business during the pandemic.
“It’s a question I’ve been asking almost every day since the pandemic began: how are we so blessed?” Takahara said.
For Hiroe Nakato, Takahara’s mother, she’s been proud of the fact “we’ve come this far” since that first day in 1972. Like her mother, Takahara hopes her own children can align their passions and pursuits with the vision behind Nakato to help continue the family business and add to his legacy in Atlanta.
“I want them to take care of the business in some way or another,” says Takahara, “and I think it’s my responsibility to be able to grow it to what they can do for us.”
Open daily from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Reservations encouraged. Ordered in line for take out or delivery. Information on public transport: Nakato is accessible via MARTA buses #27 and #809. If you are traveling by train, take bus number 809 from Lindbergh MARTA station.
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