The restaurant is teeming. Every booth and table is filled. Young people, old people, families and couples are all packed into the open, colorful room, eating and chatting. It’s just another Friday night at the sushi bar Sushiya.
“Friday and Saturday nights are always crazy here, just packed,” Sushiya manager Toshio Maruta said.
The sushi businesses in San Luis Obispo are booming. In the last year and a half, two popular new sushi bars opened – the aforementioned Sushiya and Sumo Sushi, located on Marsh Street. Shin’s Sushi Bar, Yanagi Sushi and Grill, and Sushi Kokku also thrive here.
“It’s the trendy thing to do now, to go eat at a sushi bar,” English junior Emilie Egger said.
College students seem to be the catalyst for this growing Central Coast trend. Shin’s Sushi Bar manager Jonathan Brogno estimates that 90 percent of his customers are students from Cal Poly and Cuesta College. But, according to Maruta, San Luis Obispo is actually behind the times.
“Sushi has been popular in places such as Los Angeles since the 1980s. San Luis Obispo is just now catching up,” he said.
Despite popular belief, sushi does not refer to raw fish. The word refers to foods that are paired with rice marinated in sweet, rice-wine vinegar. Raw fish (called sashimi) need not be part of the equation at all. Sushi rolls do, however, generally contain some form of raw fish, and popular choices include tuna and salmon. Vegetables are sometimes added to the rolls as well.
In fact, most students said their favorite type of restaurant to visit in San Luis Obispo is a sushi bar.
But why is this simple meal of raw fish and rice wrapped in seaweed becoming so incredibly popular among San Luis Obispo college students?
It’s no coincidence that people living in Japan have the longest average lifespan in the world, as per the news Web site Japantoday.com. According to another Web site, worldshealthiestfoods.com, sushi is one of the healthiest meals you can eat. Sashimi contains a high concentration of omega 3 fatty acids, which help maintain a healthy heart. The seaweed surrounding the roll contains vitamins and nutrients as well. Overall, sushi rolls are low in calories and saturated fat, and high in protein, making it an ideal meal.
“My mother, who lives in Japan, only eats fish and vegetables. She’s 94,” Maruta said. “Sushi is a trend here because students want to be healthy.”
In a world where a decent steak can cost upward of $20, sushi in San Luis Obispo is a bargain. Restaurants like Sushiya and Sumo Sushi offer high-quality sushi for a lower price than what one would pay for the same dish in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“We know college students can’t afford to pay what people in big cities can pay, so we make an effort to keep costs down while providing the same quality of food,” Maruta said. Sushiya also gives a 10 percent discount to all college students with an ID.
Shin’s Sushi Bar is also all about low costs; the restaurant’s rolls are usually half the price of rolls at other sushi bars, Brogno said.
Like Egger, avid sushi eaters may not have consumed the Japanese food prior to attending college.
Brogno believes the novelty of sushi drives his business. “Sushi is ‘new age’ and different. Students come from these small towns to Cal Poly, and they want to try new things. Sushi is new to them, so they try it and like it and keep coming back,” he said.
In a town where businesses close at 6 p.m. (or 9 p.m. on Thursdays!), sushi bars are known for offering hours that extend well past this early closing time. Sumo Sushi is open until 11:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, while other restaurants are open until similar hours.
Sushiya caters to college students by remaining open all day, even though sushi bars traditionally close in between lunch and dinner.
“We know students are always hungry and have crazy class schedules, so we open early and close late every day,” Maruta said. Most students eat dinner at Sushiya after 8 p.m., he added.
Although only Yanagi Sushi and Sushiya take formal reservations, sushi bars in town do their best to accommodate large parties. And since most sushi bars have a large seating capacity, they have become the go-to place for birthday parties.
When people celebrate birthdays at Sushiya, they are treated to Sushiya’s famous birthday serenade, complete with strobe lights and techno music.
But whether a customer is celebrating a birthday or not, sushi bars offer a good time.
Sake bombs are extremely popular with the college crowd. A sake bomb is created by pouring sake (an alcoholic beverage made from rice) into a shot glass and dropping the glass into (usually Japanese) beer, then drinking the concoction quickly. Students often race to see who can drink their “bomb” the fastest.
When asked why students return to Shin’s, Brogno laughed, saying, “They like sake.”
Sushiya offers a special karaoke room for parties of 10 or more, and Shin’s is looking into implementing one as well.
“In Japan, everyone is very reserved during the day, people rarely speak. So when they get off work, they like to go out and have fun. We try to replicate that same atmosphere here,” Maruta said.
“Sushi is great. It’s good food in a fun environment,” recreation administration senior Julia Groth said.
Just stop by any sushi place in San Luis Obispo, and there will be plenty of students who agree.