Bush Garden Restaurant (Seattle)

  • By Kathrine Beck
  • Posted 2/03/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21399

Over its 65-year history, Bush Garden has been many things to many people -- the second Japanese restaurant in the state of Washington; the first American restaurant with a karaoke bar; a restaurant on a par with chic Seattle restaurants such as Canlis, Trader Vic's and Rosellini's; a spot where celebrities passing through town would stop for sukiyaki prepared by kimono-clad waitresses; a hangout for politicians and community leaders; and a beloved gathering place for a devoted crowd of regulars who liked to sing.

Founded by Kaichi Seko

Bush Garden began life in 1953 in Seattle's Bush Hotel on Jackson Street in the neighborhood then known as Chinatown, under the ownership of Kaichi Seko. Seko had been born in 1896 in Japan's Gifu Prefecture. The restaurant was soon mentioned in the society columns in local newspapers. Sukiyaki-and-cocktail gatherings were held there by the Ballet Guild, alumnae of the St. Nicholas school for girls, the Japanese consul, and international trade groups. When fewer than half of American homes had television sets, it made the Seattle papers when the restaurant was described to a nationwide audience on the NBC Radio Network as part of a documentary about life in Seattle.

It was both a festive gathering place for Seattle's Japanese community and fashionable among diners of other ethnicities who were happy to remove their shoes and dine at floor level. Seko said that Americans from non-Japanese backgrounds weren't really able to sit comfortably on their legs on the floor, so he invented a system that put the tables into large rectangular openings in the floor. Diners appeared to be eating Japanese style, but they were actually sitting on cushions on the floor at the edge of the opening with their shoeless feet comfortably on the carpeted floor below, all hidden by an artfully arranged white tablecloth.

Business was good and the space became too small. In 1957, the restaurant moved to 614 Maynard Avenue South, a few blocks away. The building had apparently been the home of both The Maynard Club, which served Chinese and American food and was occasionally raided by the police for liquor license infractions, as well as a gambling spot called the Tokyo Club, which was said to have been operated by a Japanese gangster who had recently left town in a hurry.

Kaichi Seko asked his son Roy and Roy's fiancée, Joan Morishima, if they wanted to become partners with him to operate the restaurant at the new location. They said yes. Roy and Joan had met when they were with separate dates at the Palladium Ballroom at 125th and Aurora. Joan was a 1955 graduate of Garfield High School who had also been a student at the University of Washington, where Roy had studied architecture and Far East Studies. In 1950, when the U.S. military became part of the Korean conflict, Roy left school to join the U.S. Army and was given counter-intelligence training and sent to Japan.

The Sekos transformed the interior of the simple brick building into a glamorous and exotic (if not always completely historically accurate) re-creation of a picturesque Japanese village. The lavish décor included a Shinto temple-style gate, traditional carvings, bonsai trees, rice-paper screens, curved roof tiles, tatami mat floor coverings, and a working waterfall. The second floor contained a banquet room. Roy Seko and his brother Bob, who had operated a shoji screen manufacturing business together, made furniture for the restaurant. Carefully crafted chairs were put together not with metal hardware but with wooden pegs.

It's generally assumed that the name Bush Garden moved to the new restaurant from the hotel where it had first been located, but it said to have actually come from a kanji or Japanese character for the word bushi, meaning warrior or samurai, familiar to many English speakers in the term bushido -- way of the samurai.  

A Grand Reopening

The new restaurant opened on the day Roy and Joan were married. Their wedding reception was the new location's first party. Joan Seko said the restaurant was meant to provide diners with "a little bit of Japan" (Vanishing Seattle). The Bush Garden waitresses wore kimonos, and included Japanese Americans as well as Japanese-born wives of U.S. servicemen. Joan Seko didn't like the term "war brides," preferring to call them "international brides." Over the years, there were also some Korean waitresses. Japanese-American teenagers from Franklin, Garfield, and Cleveland high schools bussed tables for the prevailing minimum wage -- 75 cents an hour -- and the waitresses shared their tips with the bussers.

The Deluxe Family Dinner included beef sukiyaki cooked at the table, with side dishes of tempura, sunomono, and chicken teriyaki, as well as soup, rice, tea, dessert and a San Francisco invention -- "Chinese" fortune cookies -- all for $4.25. The printed menu included a guide headlined "Chopsticks are easy to use." Illustrations of hands showed how to hold chopsticks, how to manipulate them to come together, and how to "form a vise to pick up the food." 

For more intimate dining, 40 private tatami rooms with sliding screens were available. Occasionally, waitresses entered a tatami room with a tray of food only to find a couple engaging in what a laughing Joan Seko in a filmed interview later called "a lot of hanky panky" (Vanishing Seattle). When one couple was discovered under the table as the sukiyaki boiled above all by itself, the flustered waitress withdrew and asked Joan Seko what to do. She came up with a policy for waitresses to leave as discreetly as possible. But at least one guilty party, caught in flagrante with his date, later reported he was severely scolded by an angry waitress as she departed. The tatami rooms also had telephones, a necessity for the midcentury on-the-go businessman.

The new location was a hit. Reservations were required, and wait times were sometimes long, despite the restaurant's 450-person capacity. Women wore dresses and heels; men, business suits and ties. A photographer was hired to take Polaroid pictures of the diners. The restaurant was a favorite of the Japanese community, especially for important occasions such as weddings and funerals, gatherings of civic organizations, receptions, and banquets. High school kids on prom dates went to Bush Garden.

In the early years, the Sekos had trouble getting chefs, U.S. Immigration officials explaining that Japanese chefs would be taking jobs from Americans. Joan Seko asked them how many Americans they thought knew how to prepare sushi.

Bush Garden attracted visiting celebrities, including baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, movie star and rat pack sidekick Shirley MacLaine, and baritone crooner Vic Damone. When President Richard Nixon planned a visit there while passing through Seattle, his Secret Service detail vetoed the idea. The décor included too many hidden nooks and crannies to allow for presidential-level security. When Princess Michiko of Japan and members of her family ate there, the restaurant was cleared of other diners for security reasons.

Business was good. The Sekos added partnerships with spinoff Bush Garden restaurants in Portland on SW 4th Avenue run by Corky Kawasaki, and at 598 Bush Street in San Francisco operated by Mitsuo Hosaka. The Sekos bought the building and the parking lot across the street. The couple lived in an apartment over the restaurant for 10 years, starting a family that would eventually include five children.

After the death of Kaichi Seko in 1966, Roy and Joan moved to suburban Bellevue near Phantom Lake to live with Kaichi's widow, Suye. Roy and Joan also took on the responsibility of maintaining the stunning four-acre classical Japanese garden on the property.

The Birth of Karaoke

In the 1970s, the Sekos added karaoke to the Bush Garden bar with videotapes from Japan and lyrics printed on paper in Japanese. Bush Garden was home to the first karaoke bar in America. (Dimples, a now-defunct bar in Burbank, California, has claimed to have been the first karaoke bar in the U.S., but it didn't open until 1982.) Eventually Bush Garden would add songs in English as well as some in Hawaiian and Spanish.

In 1983, Bush Garden introduced its new thousand-square-foot Sushi Garden room, with a black marble bar, live tanks with ocean fish, antique art objects, and natural wood. A special menu, apart from the regular dining-room menu, included sashimi, tonkatsu, salmon, black cod, oysters, and king crab.

By the 1990s, Americans had become more global in their dining habits and the number of Japanese restaurants in the Seattle area, some owned by former Bush Garden chefs, had grown. The vibrant historic neighborhood that became known as the Chinatown International District had suffered ever since the 1960s when the I-5 freeway was built through it.

When Roy and Joan retired in 1996, the Seko children said they weren't interested in running the restaurant. In 1997, it was sold to Japanese native and sushi chef Masahuru "Masa" Sakata and his wife Karen, who'd first worked there bussing tables back when she had been a Cleveland High School student.

After they retired, Roy and Joan often met friends at their old restaurant. Roy went on to work with Masaharu at Bush Catering, which prepared airline food for Japan, Northwest, United and Thai airlines. Roy Seko died of cancer in 2004. In the last 10 days of his life, more than 200 people came to say goodbye to him at his home on Phantom Lake, and dozens of others had planned to stop by in the following week.

In 2016, Masa and Karen Sakata announced that the restaurant's bar would remain open with drinks and Japanese appetizers, but the restaurant itself would close. Like other elegant Seattle midcentury restaurants, it lived on in fond memory.

But Bush Garden had a second incarnation for a new generation. While it was now described as a dive bar, there was no question that it was a beloved dive bar and karaoke was the central focus. Karen Sakata said, "As we transitioned into English karaoke, it was really a place for a lot of AAPI [Asian American-Pacific Islander] young people. That was like the place to be. It was always crowded ... it was just a place for a lot of the community to gather and connect with each other and hang out" (KEXP). 

End of an Era

In 2016, the building was sold to Seattle developer James Wong. He was initially vague about his plans for the building, and for a while moved into office space above the restaurant and continued to rent to the Sakatas. In 2018, Wong spoke at a community meeting describing his plans for the property. He said he wanted to "maintain and support the rich cultural history" (Cruz) of the neighborhood, and said Bush Garden would be welcome in a new building, to be called Jasmine Tower, on the site.

Wong was an immigrant who came to Seattle from Hong Kong with his parents, and was raised on Beacon Hill. He graduated from Cleveland High School and the University of Washington. Wong and his father had both worked in Chinatown restaurants. 

Members of the community who had fond memories of the restaurant in its glory days, history buffs, and regulars at the karaoke bar tried to save the Bush and keep it where it had been since 1957. On May 28, 2019, they went to battle with Wong's company, Vibrant Cities, at a meeting of the CID's International Special Review Board (ISRD). The board was charged with preserving the district's unique Asian American character and supporting efforts to rehabilitate rundown areas for housing and pedestrian-oriented business.

Opponents of the Jasmine Tower project were concerned about affordability, as the new units would attract more-affluent residents. They didn't want to see the original building torn down. Eugenia Woo of the Historic Seattle organization said the building had historic and cultural value, and the project was "out of scale and not compatible with the district" (Ng, Community Battles ...). Woo said the building could be rehabilitated, while an engineer hired by Vibrant Cities said the 109-year old building was unsafe. Two stories had been added to the original one-story building over a shaky foundation. A lot of the wood was rotting, and the whole thing was sitting on Duwamish mud and fill. Only one wall was stable and the whole thing was seismically unsound.

Many CID leaders had already met to organize support for the tower project, which would include apartments in the tower and retail spaces in a terraced area at ground level. They had gathered letters endorsing the development from more than 25 Chinatown organizations and said a mixed-income neighborhood was good for the CID. They also said the proposed development was culturally appropriate for the area.

A group of more than 30 seniors attended, wearing matching T-shirts that said "Yes Jasmine." Their spokesperson was 87-year-old Pang Qiu Fang. Speaking in Cantonese, he said seniors avoided the area because of fear of street crime, and that the location was dirty and dangerous. Joan Seko presented the board with a letter saying, "Bush Garden Restaurant and the building has served our family and community well for many decades." But she said she believed the building was unsafe and that Jasmine would be good for the neighborhood. "We need to honor our past and embrace our future with infinite possibilities" (Ng, Community Battles ...).

The ISRD gave Jasmine the green light. It was emotionally difficult for the regulars and for historic preservationists already overwhelmed by rapid change in the Seattle landscape.

In August 2021, Vibrant City unveiled the design for its new development. Bush Garden would be replaced by a 17-story apartment tower with market-rate rents, underground parking, and retail space, collectively to be called Jasmine. The design included a nod to the past. A corner of the terraces surrounding the building would be clad in masonry similar to the Bush Garden brick facade, and be placed over the footprint of the restaurant and an adjoining brick building that would be torn down.

Karen Sakata had already ended her lease on January 31 of 2021 and turned in the keys. The pandemic had taken its toll. The restaurant had been closed for months.

A Nod to Uncle Bob

Many of its patrons and karaoke regulars, who now called it "the Bush," had become like a family. And since the 1980s, the Bush family's favorite uncle had been Uncle Bob.

Robert "Uncle Bob" Santos (1934-2016) was an activist, a politician, a Filipino community leader, and a tireless advocate for the CID and those who lived there. People had nicknamed him the Mayor of the International District. He was also a regular at the Bush, conducting a lot of political business there over the years, and crooning into the mike on a regular basis.

In his autobiography, Humbows, Not Hotdogs! Santos described a young community activist vouching for him in 1999 to a skeptical and rowdy group of anarchists involved in World Trade Center unrest, by telling them Santos "does a mean Frank Sinatra at the Bush Garden karaoke bar." So it was more than fitting that when the Bush finally found a new home, it was at Uncle Bob's Place. That was the official name of the affordable, subsidized-housing development scheduled for completion in 2023 in the heart of the CID neighborhood, at the intersection of South King Street and 8th Avenue South. The Bush regulars looked forward to beginning all over again.


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