How brothers Toshi and Yasu Kizaki made Sushi Den into one of Denver’s most storied restaurants.
Pull up to the intersection of South Pearl Street and East Florida Avenue on any Saturday night, and you’ll be lucky to get within four cars of Sushi Den’s valet stand. On the busiest evenings, the wait for a table can stretch to more than an hour—by 6 p.m. The restaurant only accepts reservations for large parties, but never during the weekend’s prime dinner hours. (The full reservation policy, a paragraph and five bullet points, is outlined at sushiden.net; the restaurant doesn’t have an open-table.com account.) But this hardly matters: The swarms of people on the sidewalk and inside at the two bars, where just about everyone can be seen sipping cucumber-garnished sake martinis, prove that waiting is not a deterrent. Quite the opposite: At Sushi Den, the wait means you’re part of the club.
“The best thing the Kizakis did for themselves was to become the best sushi restaurant in Denver,” says John Imbergamo, a local restaurant consultant who works with Rioja, Elway’s, and Panzano. “That goes a long way in making the ambience work. Busy restaurants feel better. There’s an energy level that can’t be created through music, menu, the coolest servers, the best mixologist shaking drinks behind the bar.”
Yasu estimates that Sushi Den serves 182,000 diners annually and Izakaya Den sees 88,400 visitors each year. While the Kizakis won’t reveal exactly how much the restaurants pull in each year, it’s not unrealistic to assume it’s close to $11 million. Not bad for two independently owned restaurants; in fact, that total compares with many of the big steak houses in town.
And yet, despite conventional wisdom that a packed waitlist is a good thing, this part of the Sushi Den experience has long made the Kizakis uncomfortable. “In Japan, people don’t wait,” Yasu says. “We never planned to make Sushi Den this big.”
To lessen the burden, the brothers opened Izakaya Den across the street in 2007. Designed to mimic the tavernlike establishments of Japan, but with the addition of a sushi bar, the restaurant helped gobble up overflow—and potential diners who might have otherwise wandered down the block and found another place for dinner. Izakaya Den landed on our Best New Restaurants list in 2007 (and on our 2011 Top 25 Restaurants). Even so, Sushi Den remains the main draw. “Izakaya isn’t nearly as busy, and I don’t get the same feeling as I do at Sushi Den,” Imbergamo says. “And yet, it’s the same guys, it’s right across the street, and 60 percent of the food is the same.” Local chef/restaurateur Frank Bonanno, who owns eight restaurants including Mizuna, Luca D’Italia, and Osteria Marco, puts it more simply: “You see the money being printed at Sushi Den, but I don’t think that’s the case at Izakaya Den.”
In 2009, when a costume store on the southwest corner of South Pearl and Florida (across from both Izakaya Den and Sushi Den) became available, the Kizakis jumped on the space. It was supposed to be their trifecta. The new restaurant, called Den Deli, was unprecedented: a casual (but not inexpensive) Japanese-style deli for takeout, dining in, and shopping (seafood was for sale in a back case, and Asian salads and sandwiches lined the front cases). But what the brothers didn’t account for was neighborhood fatigue. A restaurateur like Bonanno can pull off three locations virtually under one roof (Mizuna, Luca D’Italia, and Bones all occupy one block near Governor’s Park) because each restaurant is a distinct entity with a distinct cuisine and a distinct price range. Sushi Den, Izakaya Den, and Den Deli were all variations on a theme—and the market (especially in a small neighborhood like Platt Park) reached its saturation point. Den Deli lasted less than a year.
The restaurant’s replacement—Ototo, which was a wine bar with global cuisine that ranged from Japan to Spain—lasted no longer. “Ototo was a great concept, but the destination is always going to be Sushi Den,” Dutton says. Along with Ototo’s closure came the news that Izakaya Den will move into the space vacated by Pearl Street Grill next door to Sushi Den. The shuffle allows the restaurants to share facilities (though each will have its own kitchen) and some staff. It also gives Toshi a new project to focus on. “Toshi gets bored easily,” Yasu says. “It’s always, ‘What’s next for us?’ ” The new Izakaya Den will open spring 2013. (The former Izakaya Den space has been acquired by the Wynkoop and Breckenridge breweries’ parent company, BW Holdings LLC, and there’s talk of a restaurant opening there next year.)
In addition to the Izakaya move, the brothers have yet another project in the works: a 6.7-acre farm in Brighton that the Kizakis purchased in 2010. Roughly two and a quarter acres (plus a greenhouse) yield pesticide-free vegetables, most of them Japanese in origin, for the restaurants.
That leaves the space that housed Den Deli and Ototo unaccounted for—at least for now. Yasu says there are several proposals for the location, but he is clear that he and Toshi will retain at least some ownership. “We have to have a financial stake in that space,” he says, “because it’ll take diners away.”