Good chance you’ve already heard the disappointing news: After six years in Riverside Village, East Nashville sushi/Asian fusion stop Watanabe is set to close its doors for good as of Sunday, Nov. 16.
Launched initially by busy East Side restaurateur Matt Charette and chef/co-owner Hide Watanabe, the restaurant had a share of growing pains after its namesake’s exit (he left to move closer to family after the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan, Charette says). But with retooling and rejiggering, often informed by customer feedback, Watanabe hit a stride of steady growth in recent years, with a menu that spanned from fresh sushi to ramen and bibimbap.
Unfortunately, Charette says, even their strong growth wasn’t keeping pace.
“Year to date, business is up 17 percent. Last year, business grew 17 percent. So the staff that we have and have had for the past couple of years is doing a phenomenal job and we’re growing the business,” he says. “The problem is we’re growing behind the cost of doing business, instead of growing ahead of the cost of doing business. And so that’s really what fueled the decision.
“People are saying, you know, ‘I’m sorry you’re losing your business,’ but it’s not about the business. For me it’s about the people. We have such a great staff — any restaurant or bar in Nashville would be lucky to have any of those people that are working there. They’re phenomenal people, and that’s what makes it the hardest.”
Matt Charette photo: Chuck Allen from the March/April 2011 issue of The East Nashvillian
The two weeks' notice before the doors close was meant to be something of a goodbye opportunity for the neighborhood, the restaurant’s friends and fans and, most explicitly, the staff.
“With respect for the people who work over there, the incredible staff, I didn’t want them just to show up and see a note on the door with a padlock on it saying, ‘Hey, we’re closed and you’re out of a job,’” Charette says. “I expect a two-week notice from my employees when they’re going somewhere else and I wanted to give them the two-week notice as well. And my plan is… the talk of ‘Oh we’ll run the inventory down..’ No. That’s not what’s really important to me. I want our last meal to be as good as every other meal we’ve served.”
Business has been extra brisk since word of the closing got out, so to ensure that Watanabe is fully staffed and prepped, starting Monday, Nov. 10, hours are limited to happy hour and dinner from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. And while you don’t need to make a reservation to pop by, Charette and staff encourage and appreciate a heads up at 615-226-1112 to help with wind-down planning.
After Watanabe’s doors close, Charette’s immediate plans are to focus on his three other East Side businesses — Batter’d & Fried, Drifters and Beyond the Edge — and to funnel lessons learned into those busy restaurants.
“I think one of the best pieces of advice I got is, ‘Take the time to learn all the lessons you’re gonna learn from Watanabe,’” he says. “And I think one of the lessons that I learned from Watanabe is, having four different concepts is incredibly challenging. If you have multiple locations of the same restaurant, your food costing, your menu planning, your staffing, it’s all very similar, similar systems. But when you have four places with different concepts, you’re constantly trying to solve four different series of problems, as opposed to being able to solve one problem and then apply it to the other locations.”
Once the doors close for good, though, Watanabe devotees may still find a few familial nods to the long-loved Inglewood eatery in the neighborhood.
“One of the things that the general manager over here at Batter’d & Fried [Meagan Stroop] asked was, [since] some of the sushi chefs work at both places, ‘Can we maybe do a tribute to Watanabe and serve some of their more popular rolls for a little while after they close?’” Charette says. “I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ So Monday the 17th we may start serving some of the more popular sushi items at Batter’d & Fried for a little while. A little tribute to Watanabe and the great stuff that they did over there.”
If you’d like to share a goodbye/thanks and some last meals at Watanabe, head to 1400 McGavock Pike, at Riverside. Hours from Monday, Nov. 10 through Watanabe’s final day open on Sunday, Nov. 16, are 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Reservations are appreciated but not required, at 615-226-1112.