In 1972, Tetsuko Nakato traveled from her home in Japan to visit her son in Charlotte, N.C. They toured several Southern states during her stay, including a stop in Atlanta.

Nakato, 65, fell in love with the city’s expanding skyline, Southern hospitality and fried food. She returned to Japan and told her family she was moving to the U.S., ready to chart a new course for her life. Nakato had bought some land while in Atlanta and was going to open a Japanese restaurant. It didn’t matter that she had no experience working at or operating a restaurant.

When she and her daughter, Hiroe Nakato, opened Nakato Japanese Restaurant in Buckhead in 1972, they introduced an evolving Atlanta to traditional Japanese cuisine and culture. The restaurant included teppanyaki tables where “high-energy” hibachi chefs sliced, diced and grilled meals in front of an enthusiastic table of diners. Tatami rooms provided intimate spaces for a plate of sushi rolls or a sukiyaki hot pot. A tempura bar offered Southerners the fried food they loved.

Tetsuko Nakato, founder of Nakato Japanese Restaurant, and her daughter Hiroe Nakato, dined with then Governor Jimmy Carter, his wife Rosalynn and daughter Amy, as they worked together in the early 1970s to attract Japanese corporations to open offices in Atlanta. (Nakato Japanese Restaurant)

Hiroe Nakato met her husband, Kiyo Takahara Nakato, at the restaurant. He later became a hibachi chef. When Tetsuko Nakato decided to step away from daily operations, she handed the reins to her daughter and son-in-law. The couple built and opened a larger Nakato restaurant on Cheshire Bridge Road in 1991 to prepare for the world travelers coming to Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Olympics. The family also opened four other Nakato restaurants in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Missouri.

About 18 years ago, Hiroe and Kiyo Nakato passed on restaurant responsibilities to their daughter, Sachi Nakato Takahara.

“We are a mom-and-pop operation, tried and true,” Takahara said. “My grandmother opened the restaurant in 1972 … I grew up running around in the kitchen, helping, and made my first dollar at the restaurant.

Sachi Nakato Takahara, right, with her mother, Hiroe Nakato. (Nakato Japanese Restaurant)

“I do feel a lot of pressure, being the third generation and being the one to take it to the next level,” she said.

Nakato is a “one-stop-shop for any traditional as well as Japanese experience,” she said.

“Our sushi bar has the freshest sushi. We have chefs coming in from Japan that are trained through apprenticeship. We have in the back the tatami rooms where you are sort of transported into Japan,” she said.

“My parents and my grandparents went through a lot to start this business and faced a lot of difficulty after moving to the United States. I would love to make my family proud.”

The Covid-19 pandemic hurt Nakato as it did many businesses in the restaurant and hospitality industry. Last year Nakato received a $40,000 historic preservation grant. It was one of 25 restaurants selected from across the country to receive the funding to be used to preserve historic and culturally significant minority-owned businesses disproportionally impacted by the pandemic.

The money will go toward making facade and exterior improvements as new development comes to Cheshire Bridge Road.

“The neighborhood’s the one that has supported us for 50 years,” Takahara said.

For the restaurant’s 50th anniversary, diners can order its special Golden Tiger Roll featuring spicy salmon, cucumber, avocado and black masago caviar.

Nakato Japanese Restaurant shortly before it opened in 1972. (Nakato Japanese Restaurant)

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.