This may be the youngest person who has ever dined at Sukiyabashi Jiro of Jiro Dreams of Sushi fame.
It’s hard enough to get a reservation at Tokyo’s world-famous Sukiyabashi Jiro, let alone persuade the three-Michelin–starred sushi restaurant to break its own rules. But one traveler says that’s what happened this past October when she and her husband brought their 10-year-old son for dinner at the celebrated restaurant, which has perhaps never before allowed a child of such a young age to sit at its hallowed counter.
Colleen Sandaluk and her family of four are a band of expats; her husband Mike Sandaluk works for Shell, and the family has lived everywhere from the Netherlands to Qatar to Canada. They travel all the time and are always in search of food experiences, whether it’s trying hummus in Israel, meatballs in Sweden, or dining at Copenhagen’s jewel, Noma. “Food is really a focus for our family,” she says.
The obsession has most certainly extended to her 10-year-old son Clark. Four years ago, he and Colleen watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, David Gelb’s documentary film that explores the perfectionism of Sukiyabashi Jiro’s chef and owner, Jiro Ono. Colleen had to read the subtitles aloud to Clark since he couldn’t read them all yet at the time, but he loved the film, and sushi became one of his favorite foods.
So when the family was planning a trip to Tokyo this fall, Colleen knew it would mean a lot to her son to have the opportunity to dine with Jiro, one of his culinary idols. She also knew it would be nearly impossible to score a reservation, particularly because the restaurant was not known to be child-friendly. But, she noted, most people who did get into the restaurant seemed to do so through concierges of five-star hotels. She booked rooms at Tokyo’s Mandarin Oriental and asked the concierge for help.
Apparently, there aren’t that many people trying to get their kids into Jiro; a spokesperson for Mandarin Oriental tells Travel + Leisure that “it’s not often the concierge receives requests like this one.” But still, it worked. The concierge snagged a reservation for three: Clark's eight-year-old sister, Lucy, stayed at the hotel with a sitter and had an origami lesson instead.
Colleen says she started crying. “I felt like I had won the sushi lottery,” she says. But as excited as she and her son were for the reservation, there was still a hurdle in front of them: actually getting in the front door when the Jiro staff saw how young her son was. “I figured we might as well try,” she says.
When the Sandaluks arrived at Sukiyabashi Jiro at their appointed time, they saw Ono himself in the kitchen through the window. “We were starstruck,” Colleen says. But at the door, the restaurant staff noticed Clark and was reluctant to let him in. “He’s too young,” they reportedly said, referring the restaurant's unoffiicial 12-and-older policy. Ono came to the door and said the same. But Colleen and her husband insisted that this dinner was Clark’s dream, and Ono relented.
Clark was so excited and proud to be dining at Jiro that he ate everything on the 20-piece set menu, which included sea urchin, squid, sardine, and salmon roe nigiri. Colleen says that after the meal, Ono remarked that her son was a really good eater. He gave Clark a signed copy of his book and posed for pictures together. “What a stomach,” she recalls him saying.
Although the famed Tokyo restaurant bent its rules for her family, Colleen doesn’t think it’s about to start stocking up on highchairs and crayon packs anytime soon; she wouldn’t encourage others to bring their young children if they’re not sushi obsessives.
Daisuke Utagawa, owner of Sushiko and Daikaya—two respected Japanese restaurants in Washington, D.C.—agrees. Most Japanese sushi counters don’t have overt rules forbidding children, but in Japan it’s understood that parents should not bring a child to a restaurant with counter seating unless the restaurant knows the family—and is sure the child won’t bother other diners. Restaurateurs are willing to be lenient with well-behaved kids, of course—and who could resist a 10-year-old whose biggest dream is to eat at your restaurant?—but generally it’s better not to expect to bring a child into a sushi temple like Jiro.
Still, Colleen says that one thing she’s learned throughout her family’s travels is that she doesn’t have to relegate her kids to chicken fingers and spaghetti or traditionally family-friendly restaurants. It’s possible to experience this kind of adventurous, high-end, once-in-a-lifetime meal with her kids. “It even makes it more fun,” she says.
Looking for more great Tokyo ideas? Visit T+L's Tokyo Destination Guide.