When Lena Turner closed Takara, her 20-year-old Japantown restaurant, earlier this year after a months-long rent dispute, it marked the end of an era. The restaurant was a favorite among locals who’d gotten hooked on its generous bento boxes, impeccably fried tempura and other unfussy, homestyle Japanese dishes. And Turner herself was, in many ways, the face of San Francisco’s Japantown. In 1976, she opened the Japan Center mall’s very first restaurant, Sapporo-ya Ramen. All of the local merchants knew her and had stories about how she’d regale them with tales of the time she served Yoko Ono, for instance.
Even at 91 years old, she didn’t even feel close to being ready to retire.
Everyone loves a good comeback story, though, and this one is sweeter than most: On Nov. 26, Turner will open a new omakase-style sushi restaurant called Sushi Aoba helmed by acclaimed sushi chef Sachio Kojima. Located on the edge of Japantown, in the former location of Kiss Seafood, it will be the seventh restaurant that Turner has opened in the neighborhood over the past four decades.
“I had jewelry shops before that,” she says. “I’ve done so much in my life.”
In some ways, the new restaurant feels like a form of vindication, especially since the circumstances surrounding Takara’s closure were so grim. Like so many other businesses in the three Japan Center malls, Takara was forced to close entirely for several months at the start of the pandemic because the malls themselves weren’t open to the public. Still, 3D Investments, the Beverly Hills-based real estate developer that owns the Japan Center East and West buildings, insisted on charging the full rent and maintenance fees even for the time the malls were closed. In Takara’s case, that came out to nearly $20,000 a month during a time when the restaurant had no income whatsoever.