Jim, a native of Dickenson County, met Toshiko while he was stationed in Japan with the Army from 1967-1970. They were married and arrived in Richmond May 1, 1971. Jim took a job with Philip Morris. Toshiko says that her "handicap in English" left her few options other than restaurant work. Her parents (Mr. and Mrs. Saito) and sister arrived May 15 of the same year.
Mrs. Saito had run a restaurant in Japan, and friends here who tasted her cooking encouraged the family to open a restaurant. "They are a close family," Jim says, and the restaurant business "was something we could all do together." They bought a small lot across from the fairgrounds, took out a loan, built the restaurant and opened on a wing and a prayer.
They believed that the fairgrounds would draw people to the restaurant, but the first few years were tough. "People here were not ready for Japanese food in the '70s," Toshiko explains, and the location did not have the desired effect. The family kept at it though, with Jim and Toshiko waiting tables and washing dishes, while her mother churned out the Japanese home-cooking. A regular clientele slowly developed, visiting for the tempura, teriyaki beef and pork dumplings.
Today, Mrs. Saito is still cooking, and Jim and Toshiko still occasionally serve for a third generation of guests. "I don't call them customers," Jim says. "They're my friends now."
The menu is much like the one they developed 30 years ago. They've added some vegetarian entrees and deleted a few offerings, but the regulars don't let them change much. Prices run around $4 to $6 for appetizers and $10 to $15 for most entrees. It isn't flashy. It isn't formal. It's family food. I particularly enjoyed the pork dumplings and the thinly sliced, garlic-marinated sirloin on the Saito's Special. At $17.95, it's the most expensive item on the menu.
This isn't much of a food review, I know. It suffices to say that Saito's food is fine. It's worth the money for sure. But there is something else there that is worth your time. Some restaurants have a certain glow, a sort of ethereal light that washes over the dining room and makes you feel good to be there. Saito's has it. It is homey and comforting. It emanates from inside the diorama that documents 30 years of one family's American dream, and it flickers a little every time the door opens and lets in the outside air.
In the midst of all the recent turmoil and general angst to which we have been subjected, it's nice to be able to go somewhere that reminds you of the beautiful things about living in this country. I wouldn't have expected a 30-year-old Japanese restaurant across the street from a racetrack to do that for me, but it did, and I appreciate it. S
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