The first Japanese restaurant in Australia wasn’t a separate restaurant at all, but an annexe to the Dungowan restaurant in Martin Place, Sydney. Operated by Madam Yamasaki, it was advertised as the Japanese Sukiyaki Room and opened around the end of June in 1957. Later that same year, the Dungowan re-invented itself as the Quo Vadis continental restaurant and nightclub, but the Japanese annexe continued.
The Dungowan restaurant had been operating for more than 30 years and since 1932 had been owned by the Bottero brothers. Over the years, as John Newton writes in The Getting of Garlic, its cuisine had progressed from roasts and crumbed cutlets through Chicken Maryland and Hawaiian salad to pasta and fritelle. The restaurant was a popular location for receptions and formal dinners.
In 1957, the Botteros must have seen a business opportunity. By 1955 Japan had become Australia’s third-largest export market and in 1957 a new trade agreement was signed with Japan. Japanese businessmen arriving in Sydney had nowhere to eat. The Botteros converted a private dining room at the Dungowan to a Japanese Sukiyaki Room, complete with a Japanese manager, Japanese chef and Japanese hostesses.
A review of Sydney’s first Japanese restaurant was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 30 August 1957. It read:
You reach Sydney’s only Japanese Sukiyaki room by walking through to the back of a restaurant in Martin Place. The first you see of it is a blue curtain that hangs down to knee level across the entrance.
We were in time to see a squad of stockinged feet pad away for dinner, leaving behind them a row of empty shoes.
Beyond the curtain the room is almost filled by a bamboo-matted platform. On this, equipped with Hashi (Japanese chopsticks) and a small bowl, you perform your eating: perform is the only honest word; you first step up to the platform and there find the impression of display heightened by the low elevation of everyone else, both the Oriental waitresses who are short anyway and the patrons sitting cross-legged at stunted tables.
An Oriental scholar from the Australian National University was conversing in fluent Japanese with one of the waitresses when we sat down at our table and we felt very inexperienced – until our own kimono-clad waitress knelt and whispered in a healthy Australian accent:
“I’ll probably make thousands of mistakes. It’s all a complete mystery to me.”
She was Chinese. It was her first night.
The meal that followed, cooked on the table before us and served little by little into bowls of beaten raw egg, was different, delicious and expensive.
Sukiyaki, a concoction of beef and vegetables delicately flavoured, is the main dish being served at the restaurant. Another is available by advance ordering and Mrs Chieko Yamasaki, who runs the restaurant with the aid of her Australian husband, promised there would be more in the future.
The Sukiyaki room has been sufficiently successful in its two months’ existence to raise hopes of expansion. Mrs Yamasaki would like to be able to accommodate more than the present 24. Next month she hopes to be able to serve Japan’s national wine, sake, and soon there is to be a tank of live fish so the customers can choose which they want before it is killed.
But relationships must have soured between Madam Yamasaki and the Botteros. By May 1958 she was advertising that the Sukiyaki Room was moving to a new location in King’s Cross. The new establishment opened in July of that year, in competition with the original Sukiyaki Room at what was now the Quo Vadis.
By 1961 the King’s Cross restaurant was named Sukiyaki House and claiming to be the first Japanese restaurant in Sydney. In 1962 Quo Vadis, struggling financially, became a theatre restaurant but it seems Japanese meals continued to be offered in the annexe at least until 1963. However, by 1965 the business was bankrupt, its assets were sold off and the building in Martin Place was demolished.
Sukiyaki House continued to operate and in 1963 another Japanese restaurant, Fuji, opened in Bayswater Road, Kings Cross. Fuji was the first establishment to advertise a sushi bar and boasted that it had catered for the visit of the Japanese Prime Minister.
It took a while for other capitals to catch up to Sydney. The Sukiyaki Licensed Restaurant in Melbourne opened in 1970, the Samurai opened in Adelaide in 1972 and the first Japanese restaurant in Perth opened the same year. The late 1970s and 1980s saw them joined by many more, as Australians looked beyond Sukiyaki and began to appreciate the subtleties of Japanese cuisine.