A new grant program announced this week recognizes the historical significance of mom-and-pop restaurants, including Suehiro Cafe on First Street in Little Tokyo. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Rafu Staff Report

Together with American Express, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has launched the Backing Historic Small Restaurants Grant Program, a national search for the cozy cafes, delicious dives, and other beloved restaurants that have stood the test of time and served their communities for decades — but now are facing their biggest challenge yet from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mission was to award $1+ million in grants to 25 historic and culturally significant restaurants throughout the U.S. to help them improve, upgrade, and preserve their exterior physical spaces and online businesses. The program had a preference for restaurants owned by underrepresented groups, including people of color and women, disproportionally impacted by the pandemic. The grants will be administered by the National Trust.

The 25 historic small restaurants that will receive funding through the program include:

• Suehiro Café in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. Since 1972, this family-run restaurant has been serving Japanese comfort food to the Little Tokyo community and beyond.

Kenji Suzuki, Suehiro’s owner, said, “It was a big shock. We never thought we would be selected. I didn’t know many had applied. When we were notified that we were one of the semi-finalists, there were 600 restaurants on the (semi-finals) list. We still didn’t think there was a chance.”

Suzuki said his family plans to give the grant money to Anthony Sperl, owner of the building where Suehiro has been housed since the mid-1980s.

“Tony’s father and my mother (the late Junko Suzuki) signed the lease (for the restaurant) in the mid-1980s,” said Suzuki. “If it wasn’t for Tony’s father, we wouldn’t be here. We think it’s only right to give the money for the building.”

The Sperl Building at 339½ E. First St., built in 1882, is one of the oldest continuously family-owned buildings in Los Angeles.

“We continue to carry on the legacy of our founders, Junko and Yuriko, the first female owners of a restaurant in Little Tokyo,” the restaurant said in a statement. “Suehiro has been in business for 49 years and is now run by the second generation, Junko’s son, Kenji. We hope to see the third generation, Kenji’s daughters, running Suehiro someday. They are already helping out around the cafe!

“Thank you to everyone who have supported us through the years. We especially appreciate your support this past year, which has been exceptionally difficult for all of us.”

Maneki has been a fixture in Seattle’s International District for over 100 years.

• Maneki in Seattle. For more than 100 years, people young and old have returned to Maneki for traditional family-style Japanese food served in a welcoming, neighborhood atmosphere in Seattle’s International District. The restaurant features sushi, tatami rooms, sake, shochu, and a full bar.

One of the nation’s oldest Japanese restaurants, Maneki opened in 1904 in a three-story structure built to resemble a Japanese castle. Tokuji Sato owned the restaurant from 1923 to the mid-1960s, when he transferred ownership to his daughter, Virginia “Shi-chan” Ichikawa, and her husband Joe. During World War II, the building was ransacked and vandalized; after the war, Maneki reopened at its current location, which had been used as storage space during the war. (Source: Crosscut)

• Nakato in Atlanta. Since 1972, when Tetsuko Nakato first opened the restaurant’s doors, the family has shared the culture of Japanese cuisine with Atlantans and visitors from around the world. After Nakato retired, her daughter, Hiroe Nakato, along with husband Kiyo Takahara, took the reins of the restaurant and further grew Nakato’s standing as one of the premier dining destinations in Atlanta.

Today, Sachiyo “Sachi” Nakato Takahara runs the restaurant founded by her grandmother. Sachi was born in Atlanta and worked at Nakato from a very young age. She moved away to study art history at Boston University, and in 2004 she came back to the city and family business that she loved. Sachi mastered every aspect of the restaurant before being named general manager.

The other restaurants on the list are:

The Four Way Restaurant, Memphis, Tenn.

Dooky Chase Restaurant, New Orleans

Stutts House of Bar-B-Q, Tulsa, Okla.

Casa Vicky, San Jose

Chinatown Garden, Washington, D.C.

La Posta de Mesilla, Mesilla, N.M.

Daddy Dz BBQ Joynt, Atlanta

Ben’s Chili Bowl, Washington, D.C.

John’s Place, Cookeville, Tenn.

Alfreda’s Soul Food, Houston

Kegel’s Inn, Milwaukee, Wis.

Galloways Landing Bar & Restaurant, Boquerón, Puerto Rico

Tex Miller’s Hamburgers, Cameron, Texas

Historic Neir’s Tavern, New York City

Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, Detroit

Lee Lee’s Baked Goods, New York City

Sweetheart Cafe & Tea, Oakland

El Cristo Restaurant, Miami

Harold & Belle’s Restaurant, Los Angeles

Wanda J’s Next Generation Soul Food Restaurant, Tulsa

La Fonda El Taquito, Kansas City, Mo.

Ray’s Luncheonette Inc., Montclair, N.J.

The criteria for this grant program were as follows:

• Have experienced significant financial hardship due to the impacts of the pandemic.

• Have contributed to the neighborhood’s history and/or the identity of a particular neighborhood or community for at least 25 years.

• Be a small/independently owned restaurant located in a historic building and/or historic neighborhood.

Priority was given to small restaurants that have not already received significant COVID-19-related aid.

For more information, email historicrestaurants@savingplaces.org or visit: https://savingplaces.org/faqs-backing-historic-small-restaurants

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