Sushi California founder Ryoji Arakaki. Credit: Anna Mindess

Sushi California
2033 Martin Luther King Jr Way (at University Avenue), Berkeley
Wednesday-Saturday 4:30 – 9:00 p.m.
Closed Sunday-Tuesday

Ryoji Arakaki is ready to put away his knives and hang up his apron at Sushi California, his cozy Japanese restaurant that for 36 years has attracted a legion of loyal customers who have made it their second home. For now, the 70-year-old sushi chef hopes to find someone to buy the business, but if that doesn’t happen, he’ll have to make a tough decision, and soon. “Maybe it’s still not a good time to sell,” Arakaki told Nosh, “but I can’t wait forever.”  

Arakaki grew up on Okinawa, and moved to California when he turned 19. Speaking with Nosh in 2013, he said that early exposure to American culture (including cheeseburgers and rock and roll) from the large American military presence on the island made him want to leave the “small world” of Japan. His first job in the region was as a dishwasher at a successful Japanese restaurant in San Francisco, but, Arakaki said, “It was the hippie time and I had long hair.” When he refused to cut it, he was fired.

After a stint in LA, Arakaki returned to Berkeley, working nights at Yoshi’s, making tempura and yakitori, and spent his days working in the original Berkeley Bowl’s fish market. Then he trained at a succession of Japanese restaurants to learn the art of preparing sushi, eventually opening his restaurant on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, at a space that hovers, half-hidden, just below street level. Meanwhile, he started a family with equally strong ties to Berkeley: his daughter, Mia, lettered in diving, softball, and soccer at Berkeley High, went on to Yale, worked as an educator and is now back in Berkeley as Head of Program at Mindful Schools. Arakaki’s son, Mark, teaches physical education at King Middle School, and his wife, Jahlee, retired after working as a paralegal in the Chancellor’s office at UC Berkeley. 

Arakaki had been hoping to retire in early 2020, but then came the pandemic, and it wasn’t a good time to sell. A month into lockdown, he told Nosh that the restaurant, which has neither a social media presence nor the space to erect outdoor seating, was losing so much money that he feared it would have to close. But thanks to Sushi Cal’s cadre of longtime customers, some who have been regulars for over 25 years, the business remained afloat. “Many people have helped me,” he said. “Some bought take-out meals every week and left good tips to help the employees.”  

Friends and family surprised Ryoji Arakaki for his 70th birthday earlier this year. Courtesy: the Arakaki family

With the closures and restrictions of the COVID-19 crisis seemingly behind us, Arakaki’s mind has again turned to retirement. Right now, every workday morning is a whirlwind of shopping at Monterey Market, Tokyo Fish Market, Ranch 99 and other neighborhood spots; the restaurant opens at 4:30 and doesn’t close until 9 p.m.

Selling the business would mean less daily stress, he said, and more time to go the gym. But he’ll miss his customers, many of whom have been weekly patrons for decades and decades.

Sushi California patron Gordy Steil poses in front of the blinds he installed at the restaurant. Courtesy: the Arakaki family

Gordy Steil has been coming to Sushi Cal for over 20 years, since he moved to Berkeley to study at UC Berkeley. Now a psychotherapist, he usually dines there twice a week. “When I was new in town, I didn’t know many people,” Steil said.

“I found the most wonderful cast of characters at Sushi Cal, both the staff and maybe 20-30 regular customers, couples, singles, it was like a big family.”

“Ryoji is quiet, but he grows on you,” Steil said. He says his chosen seat is at the sushi bar, where even though Arakaki was always busy working, “he invited people to talk about who they are and listened without being nosy.” 

“I know the pandemic was stressful for Ryoji financially,” Steil said. “But he’s never been motivated by money, it’s the food and the people. He has supported generations of Japanese students, artists, and gay and lesbian young people too. He takes good care of his employees and has touched and improved so many lives.”

That kindness goes both ways. Fifteen years ago, Steil noticed the window blinds in the eatery were falling apart. He bought some new ones at IKEA and installed them for Arakaki himself. A decade later, those blinds were showing a lot of wear and tear, so he bought Arakaki another set from Home Depot. Steil also helped the restaurant install a a new sink and installed Wi-Fi in an effort to bring the tiny spot with fewer than 30 seats into the modern age.

This painting from Steve Kaufman hangs in Sushi Cal. Credit: Anna Mindess

Another gift at Sushi Cal came from celebrated pop artist Steve Kaufman, who once worked alongside Andy Warhol. Kaufman only dined at Sushi Cal one time — and the fish must have been extremely fresh — because after the meal, he sent the restaurant an original painting of a giant 10,000 yen note in bright popsicle hues. The lower left corner bears the comment “Great sushi” and the artist’s signature, SAK. 

Mary McNeill, a Berkeley resident and family law attorney, agrees with Kaufman’s assessment of Arakaki’s work. She’s been a Sushi Cal regular for 27 years, ever since she brought her then-6-year-old son, who fell in love with sushi from the first bite. McNeill said she’s always been impressed that Arakaki “remembers everything you tell him and makes people feel heard and cared for.” She also praises the artful way he cuts his fish and creates the perfect ratio of rice, fish and wasabi.

Besides the food, another big draw for McNeill are the generous helpings of live music performed weekly by jazz guitarist, Hideo Date.

After moving to Berkeley from Tokyo in 1992 to pursue jazz and the blues, Date first came to Sushi Cal as a customer, briefly worked in the kitchen, then took his spot at one end of the intimate dining room once or twice a week (currently Wednesday and Friday nights). Date has now shared mellow, silky classics on his jazz guitar at Sushi Cal for almost 30 years.

Throughout the years, he has been joined by any number of musicians, some visiting from Japan, on a variety of instruments. The regulars know that often, after the restaurant closes, a collaborative musical treat begins, sometimes lasting until 2 or 3 a.m. 

Patrons like Steil hope those late nights will continue under a new owner, but — therapist that he is — he’s also processing the possibility that his longtime haunt might have reached the end of its lifespan. That said, he’s still early in his cycle of grief. “I’m in complete denial,” Steil said. “I have no idea how I will cope with the loss. Sushi California is a central part of my life.”

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Anna Mindess is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Berkeley. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Atlas Obscura, AFAR, Lonely Planet, Edible East Bay, KQED,...