Once upon a time in the former blueberry patch that is now an urban wonderland, sushi was a little-known Japanese specialty considered by many timid Westerners to be, at the very least, strange. In 1981, Yoshi Yokoyama, with the support of city officials and lucky chance encounters, opened Bellevue’s first Japanese restaurant, Shogun House, on Main Street. Five years later, he launched the city’s first sushi-focused restaurant, aptly named I Love Sushi. The restaurant recently celebrated its 30th anniversary in Bellevue.
So why did Yokoyama choose to open a Japanese restaurant in Bellevue instead of Seattle?
“When I first came to Washington state in May 1981, I crossed the 520 bridge over Lake Washington. It was beautiful. As soon as I entered the city limit of Bellevue, I had this strange but very refreshing sensation throughout my body. That was when my intuition told me that I needed to talk to the mayor of the City of Bellevue,” he said. “So I went to the City Hall, was lucky enough to meet then-Mayor (Cary) Bozeman, without any appointment.
“I told him that I fell in love with his city instantly, and I wanted to know if there was anything I could do for the city,” he said. “The former mayor told me that he wanted to have a Japanese restaurant since they had none. In five seconds, I made up my mind to be the first Japanese restaurant owner in Bellevue!”
As the region’s tastes matured, its appetite for sushi expanded, too. “I realized that more and more people were interested in trying new Japanese dishes besides tempura and teriyaki,” he said. “Our sushi counter was attracting more new faces each week.”
Yokoyama opened I Love Sushi in 1986 and soon grew the I Love Sushi family with a second restaurant in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood in 1992 (sold to Chris Kim in 2005) and a third on Lake Bellevue in 2005. He also purchased Belltown’s famed Shiro’s Sushi in 2007 and, in 2014, opened Kusakabe in San Francisco, which was honored with a Michelin star later that year.