Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien had the "Eagle and Child Pub"; Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald had Gertrude Stein's place; Sam, Diane and the gang had "Cheers".

Finding that place "where everyone knows your name" is a basic human desire, rooted in a longing for community and belonging.

These havens of food, fun and fellowship are special perhaps in part because they are fleeting: people move away, lifestyles change, businesses close.

For the better part of my 20s, I enjoyed such a home-away-from-home: a little bistro in the big city--a small burger joint in Higashikurume, Tokyo.

Reno's Bistro opened at a time when I needed a place where I could become a "regular".

It was 2010 and I'd only just turned 24.  A teacher's paycheck is humble, but a young, single teacher can at least eat like a king.  So it happened that one Sunday evening I found myself at the new burger restaurant.

I had wanted to go for some time, but did not have any close friends who I could go with and I did not want to be the awkward lonely guy eating by himself.  Eventually I just gave up and decided to go on my own.

I ordered the Kansas City Burger that evening, a flavorful hamburger topped with barbecue sauce.  I was about to eat on my own at a table in the corner when a colleague whose family was just sitting down across the way called me over.  So, my first meal at Reno's turned out to be a time of fellowship after all, as I talked to my colleague's elderly parents, who had been missionaries in Japan in the 60s and 70s, and were back for a visit.

In June, as my first year of teaching was drawing to a close, I visited Reno's for the second time.  This time, the occasion was a guy's night out with a few colleagues, all of whom were in their late 20s.  We picked out some beers from the selection of imports in the fridge, ordered a steady supply of appetizers and enjoyed a good evening of celebration for the year that was ending, joined in conversation by the chef, Kevin, who entertained us with stories on a vast array of subjects.

When I came back from my summer vacation in America, Reno's had become part of my routine.  While several of the guys I'd gone with before were married and unable to go regularly, a few other single guys decided that there was no better place to spend a Friday night, or a Saturday night, and often, both.

Kevin and Meg Reno wasted no time in adopting us as a second family and before long each of us felt comfortable dining at Reno's on our own and simply sitting at the counter, chatting with the Reno family as they worked away.

So it was that Reno's Bistro served as the backdrop for so many milestone social events of my 20s:

It was at Reno's that I forged my first real friendships with colleagues my own age, including a friend who would later be my roommate for one year.

It was at Reno's that I first stepped out of the "English bubble" I'd been living in and practiced Japanese with other patrons who spoke no English whatsoever.

It was at Reno's that I rung in the New Year at the start of 2012.

It was at Reno's that I enjoyed dinner with several friends from high school who were living on base in or near Tokyo.

It was at Reno's that I learned what a small world it truly was: my sister-in-law's cousin had frequented Reno's when he was playing ball for the Seibu Lions several years earlier--something we discovered when she and my brother were in Japan for a visit two years ago, and noticed his jersey hanging on the wall.

Sometimes I was the only customer in the restaurant.

Sometimes I was sandwiched between strangers because the place was so crowded.

One time, I was the only white guy in an otherwise-Japanese conga line.

That was on Mariachi Night--the Renos had invited a Mariachi band to come and play.

I also went to Reno's on Blue's Night, Folk Night, and several evenings on which my roommate (who was the CAJ band teacher) would perform with a local group.

Over the years, I tried everything on the menu at least once (well, maybe except for the salads).

I got to the point where I didn't need a menu.

Heck, I got to the point where I ordered burgers that weren't even on the menu.

I went to Reno's on lonely nights where I would quietly play Bejeweled on my iPhone.

I went to Reno's on busy nights where I made new friends and worked up the courage to talk to girls.

More than once, I went to Reno's after getting off the airplane coming back from America, suitcase in tow.

I went to Reno's on my 26th birthday, when they had picked up an ice-cream cake for me with my roommate.

I went to Reno's with my brother, my sister and my parents when each of them took turns coming out to visit.

I went to Reno's when it was time to say goodbye to my roommate who was returning to America.

I went to Reno's on my 3rd date with Tomomi.

I went to Reno's with my whole family when they came out for my wedding.

I went to Reno's tonight, for the very last time.

We knew for some time that the Renos were planning to move on to other things, but the official announcement only came last week that they'd finally sold the restaurant, and would be closing their doors on Saturday the 23rd.  Married life had meant a change in dining habits and so our trips to Reno's over the past year came once a month or once every two months, but we always enjoyed those meals, those chances to catch up with the Reno family.  Tonight, they were busy--there would be no stories from Kevin, no catching up, no long farewell.

So, I ordered a Cowboy Burger (topped with barbecue sauce & fried onions), Tomomi ordered a Kansas City Burger and we shared a side of spinach-artichoke dip.  We paid the check, said a quick goodbye to Meg, walked out the door, and an era quietly ended.

More than their cooking, I am forever grateful to the Renos for their hospitality and their kindness.  They were a family away from family, a well-spring of encouragement, good humor, friendship and care. For a good portion of my 20s, Reno's was the place where everyone knew my name.
I will never forget that little bistro in the big city.
Chilling with Meg and Gabe (my roommate) back in 2011


  1. We thoroughly enjoyed our visits there too (and I did try most of the salads and they were great!)

  2. Nate,
    As always you have a way with words and a beautiful story to tell. Just reading your account I felt deeply connected to Reno's despite only having gone that one night with you, Cody and Jessica. That was a wonderful night of fellowship, food and camaraderie. I could sense that you felt at home there, a natural extension of your comfort zone in a foreign land that you had taken on as your own. I am sad to hear their doors are closing and that an end to era will occur; but that is a reminder to look to the future and the opportunities to open new doors and kindle new relationships - hopefully on par with or even greater than the last. Thank you so much for sharing Nate, you and your words are always an inspiration to me. Your ability to tell a story often moves me to tears.