Mikado, the family-run Japanese restaurant which was built from scratch at the corner of Georgia and Illinois streets in 1997, will close permanently in December. While it’s reasonable to think he joins the long and disheartening list of places that couldn’t survive the blow COVID-19 took on the restaurant industry, the daughter of matriarch Mikado Yu- Mei Lee describes it as something simpler. The family’s 24-year lease expires at the end of the year, and the landlord has told them he wants to take another direction. “I felt all the emotions,” says Connie Lee. “Anger, sadness, denial, all the stages of mourning. ”
Connie, who ran the restaurant for over a decade (in addition to having held previous positions as a waiter, dishwasher, sushi chef, and cook), was a 19-year-old comparative literature student at Indiana University when her mother opened Mikado. the same year as Titanic was released and Princess Diana was killed. Yu-Mei Lee worked closely with the late Tamara Zahn, founder of Indy Town Center, which played a key role in revitalizing the downtown core at a time when there were only a handful of sit-down restaurants, with little to no minority representation.
This corner of downtown was just a wasteland when the city asked Lee to come to Indianapolis. Lee, whose husband died in 1992, had three restaurants with his parents, sisters, and brother at the time: Szechwan Restaurant in Greenwood, Wok in Bloomington, and the first iteration of Mikado, also in Bloomington. Eventually all three were sold to focus on the downtown business. The family also opened Shanghai Lil in 2003 on the north side of Indianapolis near the Fashion Mall, but it closed in 2014 after a devastating fire.
Lee is originally from Taiwan and she hired Japanese chefs for Mikado. The recipe for sushi rice is over 200 years old and hasn’t changed since the restaurant opened. She was at the restaurant every day, learning how to make sushi and talking with her customers. “She broke English,” says Connie, “but she understands everything, and people understand her. She’s much better in front of the house than I am. She can charm any table.”
When Mikado first opened, there was nothing like it in town. He felt fancyespecially for Indiana in 1997. There were big leather cabins for the fancy people, private rooms for the fancy people, hibachi tables for the fancy people. If the Kardashians were Hoosiers in the late ’90s, they would have shown up to Mikado with a film crew to capture them in a private corner, dining at low tatami tables behind sliding wooden doors.
There was a time when Alec Baldwin was accidentally turned away because the waiter who answered the phone didn’t know who he was. He finally found his way to someone who recognized the name, and they asked Connie what to do since the restaurant was full. “We had an open table, and it was the worst seat in the house, a hibachi table that we no longer used for this purpose,” says Connie. “He took the table and was very nice, honestly.”
Then there was the long friendship between Lee and Reggie Miller. “He was a regular at the restaurant when he played for the Pacers, and he loved his fried rice. She would do it for him and bring it to the field. They let her in because they knew her, ”says Connie. “My grandfather was still alive then, and he and my mom were huge basketball fans. Reggie had two seats for them in his on-field suite for each game. “
Mikado employees stay for a very long time – the sous chef has been there for over 20 years and one of the waiters started when the restaurant opened and never left. Even employees who have moved on to other careers (lawyers, teachers) return to help at conventions and other busy downtown events.
Although Connie has been working in her family’s restaurants since she was 6 (“Child labor isn’t a thing when it’s a restaurant family,” she laughs), it is. when she arrived at IU she decided to officially pursue a culinary career. She left Bloomington for a few credits before graduation (a regret that still haunts her) and went on to earn a Culinary Arts degree at Cordon Bleu in San Francisco. Although she loved California and planned to stay there, family ties brought her back to the Midwest. She lived briefly in Chicago, where she worked in several restaurants, including the famous Charlie Trotter’s. But she returned to Indy every weekend to work at Mikado.
The family had always intended to renew the lease when the original 1997 contract expired. The 24-year lease when the restaurant was built was a good faith sign to the family that the town wanted them to be there for the long haul. When it became clear over the past few months that the owner was firm on the decision to move on, the Lee family grappled with the emotions of the business closing after more than two decades. “It’s a weird feeling,” says Connie. “Of course we want to stay there. It is an amazing place. We survived the 2008 recession. We survived the demolition of the RCA Dome. We survived the Georgia Street closure for over a year as the city prepared for the 2012 Super Bowl and there were dumpsters parked six inches from our windows. We survived the pandemic. We are not closing because business is bad. We close because we have no choice.
And it’s not just the impact on her own family that Connie thinks about. “I think a women-owned and minority-owned business like ours will be missed downtown,” she says. “I hadn’t realized how important it was to have something like this until the last five years or so. It is important to have representation in the city.
As Connie works to calm things down in the restaurant (anything tied up should stay, and everything else can go or be sold by the family), she thinks a lot about Mikado’s legacy. When asked what she is most proud of, the answer is quick and simple: “The way we treat our employees.” And I think it shows in the length of time the employees have worked here. Her mother has always provided health insurance for staff and Connie has added 401 (k) matching funds, a rarity in the restaurant world. (Both had to be put on hiatus during the pandemic.) She also plans to pay severance pay to employees when Mikado shuts down. “I’m really proud of that because most restaurants don’t give out severance pay,” she says. “I want to deliver at least a month, and if business is really good here at the end, it could be more.”
As for her, Connie is pondering what she wants to do next and hopes to open a small Hawaiian barbecue restaurant, where a typical plate includes marinated meat like ribs or chicken, rice, macaroni salad and cheese. cabbage. Its future clients can eExpect a lot of spam, including the Musubi Spam Lee shared with us in May 2020. “I was born in Hawaii,” she says, “and I’ve always talked to my friends about wanting to open a place that focuses on that kind of food.” Her uncle has a busy Hawaiian barbecue restaurant in Chicago called Aloha eats, and she’s seen it work for him since 2004. “It’s delicious,” she says. “If you want good Hawaiian food, go for it. And it’s a perfect pandemic model because it’s mostly about delivery. ”
For now, though, it’s all about Mikado and caring for the people who made it a downtown institution. “I know people hate to say it’s like family, but when someone has worked with you for over 20 years, I really feel like it’s family,” she says. “They come to my mother to eat. They help him mow his lawn. I don’t know what other word to use. We are a family.”