What is an otherwise subdued Wednesday evening in the South Side looked more like a Friday or Saturday night inside Nakama's raucous lobby and crowded bar. The miserable November weather hadn't deterred the wet, hungry, huddled masses of mostly young professionals waiting for one of the 16 hibachi BBQ tables, each located in the relative calm of the back of the restaurant.
In my attempt to avoid the crowd, I grabbed a seat at a (shockingly) almost-empty sushi bar off to the side. But like a scene that happens only in the movies, within 60 of sitting down, every seat in the sushi area was taken. Unlucky souls who arrived just minutes afterward hungrily eyeballed seats at the now-cramped bar. Three chefs immediately went to work preparing sushi orders, as waiters hurriedly took down orders for drinks and appetizers.
Since Nakama opened in September 2003, the place has been perpetually packed to its figurative gills. Perhaps this is a testament to its food, which is considered this year's best sushi and Japanese food by readers of this paper. But it could also be the service, which, probably not by coincidence, was also voted by CP readers as the year's best.
Those votes may have come from some of Nakama's regulars, who receive discounts and gifts through a rewards program. As Nakama co-owner Becky Gomes explains, the restaurant takes its VIP program very seriously. Just this month, its top 250 customers got serious "thank-yous" in the form of holiday gift baskets. "We really try to take care of the people who take care of us," Gomes says. "We know [customers] have 200 billion choices for places to eat."
But a service program will only get you so far: You also need a knowledgeable and happy staff of hostesses, servers and cooks. According to Gomes, more than half of Nakama's staff has been with the restaurant since it opened, and there is a long waiting list of people who want to work there.
One person who has been at Nakama since nearly the beginning is head chef Ron Dunn. With 22 years of experience as a Japanese BBQ chef, Dunn may hold the distinction of being the first non-Japanese hibachi chef in Pittsburgh. He now presides over a staff of 12 chefs, and has the plum role of cooking for Pittsburgh's celebrity visitors, famous residents and notable sports teams. (Nakama provides a private dining area for famous diners who want to eat without gawkers.)
Perhaps another reason customers are so pleased is that there are typically three servers per hibachi table, so diners are never in want of anything for very long. Dunn adds that the restaurant's lone Japanese-speaking chef will come in on his day off just to cook for Japanese tourists who call in advance.
On any given day, the constant flurry of activity inside Nakama is on display through giant windows looking onto East Carson Street. Yet the bustle doesn't seem to detract from the restaurant's appeal. And even for patrons who show up a few minutes late, Nakama is well worth the wait.