Fresh Fish Lowdown

Secrets of the sushi bar revealed!

 

Dear Dara,

Why do people sit at the sushi bar in a sushi restaurant? Should I? Is there better fish there? How can I get the best fish in the restaurant? How and whom should I tip?

Getting fresh: Is sushi better at the bar?
Daniel Corrigan
Getting fresh: Is sushi better at the bar?

Location Info

Map

Sushi Tango

3001 Hennepin Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55408

Category: Restaurant > Japanese

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

Fuji Ya Minneapolis

600 W. Lake St.
Minneapolis, MN 55408

Category: Restaurant > Japanese

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

Origami

30 1st St. N.
Minneapolis, MN 55401

Category: Restaurant > Japanese

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

--Befuddled O'Bemused, Bemidji

 

The above isn't a real letter, but it expresses the gist of reader letters I get all the time lately. And with a new sushi restaurant opening every nanosecond, questions about sushi bars, sushi tipping, and sushi etiquette have never been more pressing.

The problem: Sushi bars are different from other restaurants.

Okay, duh.

But I think what throws people is the variety of ways they're different. Consider: At a sushi bar you face a guy who's pretty busy. But he's more your server than the person behind you bringing drinks. He's also the keeper of the vault, as far as fish. And the keeper of the magic and skill, as far as sushi. You want to make him happy.

Yet, in America, we only tip people who are below us on the social hierarchy: We tip the flight attendant but not the pilot, the housekeeper but not the hotel manager, the guy who delivers the couch but not the person who sold or designed it. In some situations, proffering a tip can even be seen as an insult, or at least impudent: You'd never slip a twenty to your son's kindergarten teacher, your senator, or your anesthesiologist, no matter how great the customer service. So what is the sushi chef? He's clearly the most important guy in the room, which in our culture generally means it would be an insult to tip him. Yet he's also serving food, which in our culture means you must tip him. Is he a server? A chef? A bartender? Or what?

Add to this puzzle two more diffuse and confusing factors: one, in consuming sushi, we seem to be negotiating in some satellite of Japanese culture--even if the chef is from Laos and studied with Koreans and we are French Canadian by way of Minnetrista Two: the mystery regarding that tip line on the credit card receipt. Who gets that money? Does it go only to the server? After all, that's how it works in other restaurants.

The more I think about it, the more I see that sushi bars are a perfectly logical place for a spazz-out of social anxiety, before you even take into account that it's all about that most perishable of all scary foods, raw fish.

But here's the inside dirt you need to successfully navigate this perplexing cultural site.

First, please know that every sushi restaurant has its own policy regarding tips. For example, I talked to managers or owners at three top local sushi spots--Minneapolis's Sushi Tango and Fuji-Ya, and St. Paul's Katsu Sushi--and learned that at the sushi bar at Fuji-Ya and Tango they pool every single tip--cash over the bar, credit card receipts, whatever comes their way--and redistribute it by set percentages. This percentage varies between restaurants, but, basically, everybody gets some: sushi chefs, servers, chefs you can't see (like the grill and tempura folks), and even dishwashers. Which is to say, when you're seated at the sushi bar, no matter where you put your twenty--in cash over the bar, on the receipt, whatever, the same portion of it will always go to the parties involved. (It varies, but figure the sushi chef is getting somewhere between 40 percent and 60 percent of what you leave. At the restaurant tables that are not the sushi bar, everything is different. There servers keep the vast majority of the tip money, and "tip out" the sushi chefs, the same way they do their assistants (busboys of yore), giving them a percentage of their take for the night. "At the end of the night there are tips flying all over the place--it's a team effort, from chef to dishwasher," explains Tom Hanson, owner of Fuji-Ya."

But like I said, all sushi restaurants have their own policies, and at Katsu Sushi, the tip jar on the sushi bar is exclusively for the chef, and anything on the credit card receipt is split 50/50 between the the sushi chef and the server who brings your hot food, drinks, and such. That is, unless you specify otherwise: Laurie Malmgren, manager at Katsu Sushi, says it's not uncommon for people to write on their credit card receipt "$20 for sushi chef, $10 for server," or what-have-you. And you listen? I ask. "Of course! Absolutely," says Malmgren.

One of the surprising things I learned in asking these questions is that people at each sushi restaurant assume that we all know that every restaurant's tipping policy is slightly different, and that we'll know to ask.

Take all the social anxiety outlined above and compound it with questions? About money? Are you mad? Are we not Minnesotans? If you prick us, do we not quietly go off and take care of it ourselves? Ask Asian people handling raw fish about the money we are going to give them to express approval? There are not enough smelling salts on the earth. "Oh yeah, ask us anything, we're right here!" says Teng "Tengo" Thao, legendary sushi chef and owner of Calhoun Square's Sushi Tango. "It's okay to ask anything. It's not like you're dumb if you ask--you just don't know, and we deal with this all the time," says Laurie Malmgren of Katsu Sushi. "We wish people would ask more questions," says Tom Hanson, of Fuji-Ya.

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