Bellevue’s first sushi restaurant celebrates 30 years

After 30 years in business, it can be easy for a restaurant to stick to the same old dishes, the same things that customers have seen for three decades.

Not so for I Love Sushi, Bellevue’s first sushi restaurant, which celebrated its 30th year in business with a bash at its Lake Bellevue location on Nov. 3.

Yoshi Yokoyama, the founder of I Love Sushi, said the restaurant group would be adding something new to its menus.

“Now for the next 30 years — no I’m not crazy, OK? — I want to do something great for the next 30 years,” Yokoyama said, cheery from at least one serving of special-occasion sake. “I call it “I Love Souzai.”“

Souzai is a little like side dishes, a little like tapas and a little like dishes you can order from a deli. These could range from seaweed salads, small katsu cutlets, or onigiri — basic rice balls. The most important thing regarding souzai is that they are side dishes, while steamed rice is the main dish.

Yokoyama has been working with chef Jiro Oki to prepare the inventive plates for his restaurants. He called Oki “a pioneer in the souzai field.”

The restaurateur has an interesting history with Bellevue, first arriving in the area in 1981. According to Yokoyama, he instantly fell in love with Bellevue, and went to then-Mayor Cary Bozeman to ask him what he could do for his new city.

“He said Bellevue had no Japanese restaurant, and asked if that was something I could do,” Yokoyama said. “I had no money, no experience in running a restaurant, but I opened the very first one in Bellevue.”

On Nov. 3, 1981, he opened Shogun House on Main Street. Pleased by the success of that venture, he opened I Love Sushi on Northeast 8th Street on Dec. 1, 1986. That location has since closed, but he opened a second location in South Lake Union and the third on Lake Bellevue, where he hosted the celebration.

I Love Sushi Group bought Belltown spot Shiro’s Sushi in 2007 and opened Kusakabe in San Francisco in 2014, earning a Michelin Star that same year.

But last Thursday, Nov. 3, an important cultural holiday in Japan, it was all about I Love Sushi.

Taiko drummers, sake kegs, and a mouth-watering spread of nigiri, sashimi, wagyu shabu-shabu, oysters on the half-shell and — of course — more than a dozen souzai dishes were all featured at the bash. Bellevue Mayor John Stokes spoke, thanking Yokoyama for years of delicious food and helping to diversify Bellevue’s food scene with his “centerpiece” restaurant.

Bozeman couldn’t make the event, but sent a letter of congratulations to Yokoyama for all his success, and — looking around at all the friends, family and public officials cheering 30 more years — it was hard to disagree.

The appreciation was mutual.

“Mr. Bozeman ignited the fire in me,” Yokoyama said. “That same torch will be carried by your chef and the management team here at I Love Sushi.”

I Love Sushi Bellevue is open for lunch at 23 Lake Bellevue Drive seven days a week, from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 5 to 9 p.m. on Sundays.