Benicia is such a small, talkative town, that when a new restaurant pops up, the entire community reacts. And there is a process by which Benicians collectively decide if the new place is any good. First, they’ll go to the new restaurant in droves, and you’ll see a quick spike in popularity, which doesn’t necessarily last. But if the food and service is up to Benicians’ standards, you can expect that place to be part of the town’s landscape for quite some time.
Kimono’s—the town’s brand new Japanese grill and sushi restaurant—is the latest local joint to pass that test, and they’ve done so pretty emphatically. If you drive there after 5 or 6 p.m. on any day that they’re open, you’re most likely going to see a full parking lot. And that doesn’t even tell the full story—from their very first week the restaurant’s owners experienced such a demand that they were forced to install valet parking, along with an offsite valet parking lot, said John Meric, one of three founders of the restaurant.
“Really, the parking was the only problem we had, but ever since we started offering free valet at night that’s taken care of it,” Meric said. “We have a valet lot 59 seconds away for when the main lot gets too full, and we haven’t had any problems with it.”
For those who haven’t been there, Kimono occupies a lot next to McDonalds on East 2nd Street, the lot formerly occupied by the luncheon diner Pappas. Ironically, Pappas received national attention for the exact opposite reason that Kimono is getting so many local accolades; the Food Network, after it put Pappas on the show “Restaurant Impossible,” described the restaurant as having, “a drab interior, lackluster food,” and heading towards “extinction.” Once Pappas eventually shut down in 2013, the building remained vacant until Meric, along with his brother Raffi Meric and their father, decided to form a Japanese restaurant there last year.
Surprisingly, up until this point, the Meric family has made its living in the jewelry business. They have no background in the restaurant business, none of them are Japanese, and despite it’s polished look and formula, Kimono is a single restaurant, not a franchise chain. So, why did these three men decide to form a Japanese restaurant, and how the heck have they been so successful at it? The answer might be a lot simpler than it sounds…
“Believe it or not, the two businesses are almost exactly the same,” John Meric said. “Except one is diamonds and one is steak. It might be unusual, but we’re entrepreneurs!”
John says that it was a trip to Hawaii and Japan that inspired them to start Kimono and to open it in their town of Benicia. After sampling the local cuisine in both areas, the family realized that they were having a blast. They decided right then and there to “diversify,” Meric said.
“My father, brother and I dine in Benicia all the time, but we never come across a really interesting or entertaining restaurant,” Meric said. “When we were in Hawaii and Japan we were having a good time, and we just said, ‘You know what? This would be great in Benicia.’”
So they returned home, acquired the old Pappas property, and began to rebuild the place from the ground up. At first, they tried to open a Benihana franchise but soon learned, to their surprise, that Benihana is no longer opening new American franchises; if they wanted to start a new Benihana restaurant they were going to have to go overseas. They didn’t want to do that, but they weren’t deterred at all by the rebuke, rather, they decided to set out on their own.
They hired a Japanese architect to restructure the interior with multiple rooms, a bar, a sushi bar, booths, grills on the restaurant floor and even a fish tank by the entrance. Folks who used to eat at Pappas probably won’t be able to recognize the inside now.
“We basically just worked with the right people over and over,” Meric said. “We didn’t leave anything old; everything is brand new here. We basically re-built the place from the ground up.”
They also hired a former Benihana manager of more than 30 years to run the kitchen, and a GM who worked at a similar Japanese restaurant for many years. They also chose to spend extra money on food to ensure high quality and, unlike many restaurants, they make sure to thoroughly clean their kitchen “top to bottom” each day, Meric said.
“We’re really picky about food quality. We have one of the greatest, Mr. Hiroshi (the head chef), and his experience and expertise in fish and steak is unparalleled,” Meric said. “This is what he’s done all his life. And we don’t cut corners when it comes to food. The cost might be high for us, but people really seem to appreciate the quality, so we’re not bringing it down.”
To illustrate this point (and the restaurant’s popularity) Meric pointed out that, although they focus more on grilled food than sushi, they get fresh fish every other day. There was also a recent occasion where he and his co-owners were doing a taste test on chicken and encountered a dilemma. The sample that everyone agreed on was far and away the best was also the choice that cost a lot more than the median price. They talked about it, but ultimately decided to grit their teeth and bear the extra costs of the chicken, since they couldn’t deny that it was the best, Meric said.
“And our sushi is triple-a quality,” he added. “Even though we bring in fresh food every other day, none of it goes to waste, because we’re always so busy.”
Kimono is broken up into multiple sections, each designed to cater to a particular customer’s needs. There are normal booths for more intimate dining, situated near to the sushi bar, which is adjacent to their gigantic, vibrant fish tank. Across from the booths there are a series of table/grills where folks can sit and watch their food get grilled right in front of them. In keeping with that theme, there is also a private party room with more table/grills (if you’re planning a party at Kimono, remember that its party room seats up to 40 people). On a typical weekend evening, every single space in the place is usually full, so plan accordingly!
When it comes to the table/grills, Kimono has a routine. They’ve got it planned out so that each dinner, from when you walk in to when you finish desert, should be around an hour and a half. But that only works if everyone from your party shows up at the same time, Meric said, because Kimono’s chefs have been instructed to cook everyone’s meal in front of them, all at once, so they have to wait until each person in the party has ordered. So if a member of your party is late and you have to wait around, make sure to guilt them into picking up the tab.
There’s also a full bar, of course, with the means to make all the normal cocktails you can get these days, plus a few in-house specials, plus a few unique Japanese treats like sake or Japanese wine. Among the best spirits in the house is the Japanese Yamazaki whiskey, aged 12-15 years, from the country’s oldest distillery. If you try it, it’s 80 proof, but contains less bite than wine or beer, so beware!
When it comes to food, they’ve got everything from teriyaki and teppan steak and chicken, filet mignon, and Kimono New York strip steak, to an assortment of basic and specialty sushi rolls, which are crafted for aesthetics as well as taste. They’ve got octopus, crab, shrimp, salmon, squid, halibut, tuna, sea urchin, and many other kinds of seafood, and when you get it, you be assured that they either got it delivered fresh that same day, or the day before.
“We’re really picky about, ‘fresh,’ and ‘clean,’” Meric said. “Those are the two most important things to me. That and customer service.”
And although he’s been the spokesman for the place in our article, Meric was adamant that he wouldn’t be enjoying the success of the restaurant if not for the hard work of his co-owners and co-founders—his family.
“My brother and father work very hard on this,” Meric said. “I’d rather give them credit more than me.”
Kimono is located at 1654 East 2nd Street in Benicia. They’re open from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Monday thru Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 9 p.m. on Sunday. For more information or to request a private party room, call (707) 750-5418.
Kimono has two main ways to leave reviews, Yelp and Facebook, where they have 4.3 stars and 4.7 stars respectively (Facebook readers seemed to have a much better sense of the place). You can also follow them on Facebook where they’re pushing 4,000 likes in their first year (pretty good for a town with a median age of 42), by visiting this link: www.facebook.com/KimonoRestaurant.
Nate Gartrell grew up in Benicia, studied journalism in college, and has written for a handful of media outlets since age 15. He aspires to visit all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums and to hit the trifecta at the horse track.