On Tuesday, Nov. 8, the line that snaked around the block on 20th Street and Broadway was so long it had most people assuming it was a voting queue, but in fact it was in a group of fanatical diners, eager to try New York's outpost of Sugarfish during its first week of operation.
"The West Coast has landed here to bring high-quality sushi and value, which generally don't go hand in hand in New York!" said Brian Mitger, who relocated to the city from Los Angeles.
"You are paying $100 plus per person for omakase at Gari or Seki; there is nothing like this," said Stella Tizenberg.
After eight years, and 10 locations in the Los Angeles area, the popular brand has decided to expand east, and its initial effort has been met with an overwhelming response and a rarely seen level of obsession. The affordable version of high-quality, super-fresh fish served on rice warmed to body temperature has become an addiction.
"I don't like to leave work early, but for Sugarfish I did!" said Amanda Schabes, creative director for the women's fashion line Ferez, who was wearing a stylish baggy coat and knit hat. "Every time I go to L.A. I have to eat there." Her friend Jessica Siskin, who makes cakes out of Rice Krispies, served as an advance woman, arriving first at 4:15 to give her name, then returning to check in at 5:15. "By 6:15 there was a line around the corner just to put your name down," she reported. The third woman with them, Jennifer Schorr, who works in the restaurant industry, lamented that others meant to meet up with the group were turned away. "There was a three-hour wait when they got here, so they shut the line down," she said.
Courtney Kirsch has braved the lines twice so far, in preparation for her husband's birthday celebration. "They have a program; if you come twice before your birthday, you get one free meal on the actual day," she explained.
Courtesy of Sugarfish
Mom & Pop Records owner Michael Goldstone, who attended the early friends and family preview for Sugarfish, was back again with his wife for another meal. "I lived in L.A., and at the beginning, if you would go to the chef and ask for a spicy tuna roll he would yell at you and run you out of his shop. Everybody who works here has been brought in from L.A., and it tastes exactly the same here."
Even showing up at odd hours doesn't guarantee a seat, as Equinox COO Scott Rosen discovered. "I eat at the one in Beverly Hills frequently, and the new place has a great vibe, so I waited until 2 p.m. to have lunch, thinking I would get right in, but there was an hour-and-a-half wait," he says. "I wound up getting soup at Hale and Hearty."
One of Sugarfish's owners, Lele Massimini, says it took three years to bring the concept here. "Every piece of fish has a story, and we had to bring each one to the same quality that we serve in L.A.," he explains. The uni was particularly challenging. "We spent weeks trying to get the right uni from Santa Barbara. Some of it was not as sweet as we wanted or had a little aftertaste." Despite the massive success of Sugarfish in L.A., Massimini says he and his partners were surprised by the East Coast reaction. "We are absolutely overwhelmed; we didn't plan on being full at 3 or 4 in the afternoon or having so many people waiting outside that we had to stop taking names by 6."
A few days earlier on Nov. 5, the waiting game was pretty much the same, with waits averaging four hours by 6:15 p.m. Around 11 p.m., Chef Nozawa walked around to the tables and posed for pictures, and the restaurant gave everyone a trendy black Sugarfish hat signed by him.
Of course, unlike L.A., New York can get pretty frosty after next month, so once the punishing winds and driving snow arrive, maybe there will be fewer zealots waiting in line for hours, and the culinarily curious can happen by and score a table. If not, their second project, a branch of the hand roll bar KazaNori is due to open in NoMad this winter, so one can always head there to sample fresh West Coast sushi.
Additional reporting by Jackie Strause.