When I moved to this town ten years ago, I tried all the sushi places--that is, all three of them--and hated what I ate at two. Lame combinations, overly sweet rice, too much mayo. Never went back to either. The one I did like and went back to, with a real Japanese proprietor/sushi chef, sold shortly thereafter and the sushi was then made by two big chubby Chinese guys who probably weren't but 20 years old, with no mastery of technique nor interest in excelling. So that, too, wen on the Do Not Return list. Since then, three conveyor belt sushi operations have opened, all with separate owners. I kind of liked the first one--it wasn't great, but it was better than no sushi--and went back twice more, however on that third visit some sashimi had an ammonia smell and I've never gone back. I've never been to the second one, but it was a regular Japanese restaurant that saw it's business double when it installed the conveyor belt, according to the local biz journal. Last night, I went to the newest/third of the three. It's owner has several very successful Thai restaurants that I've not been to. It's a beautiful room, though, all glass and next door to a new 16-screen theater, with a stunning 10 foot tall sitting Buddha in the center of the belted area--the sushi 'chefs' work in back of it. It's a place that, for location and room-feel, I really wanted to be impressed by.
Didn't happen. At only 6:30 on a weeknight, it seemed to be doing okay business for Bellingham--that is, it was about half full--but the conveyor belt was 2/3 empty, and if my estimate's slightly wrong than it was 3/4 empty. At best, three empties went by for every one that offered food. The empties I refer to are pedestals/bases, about the size of a can of tuna, that have a name on them like "Monster Roll" or "Today's Special", on top of which the plates of food go. The bases aren't permanently affixed, they can be removed, but instead once relieved of its food it just rides around until the sushi chef replaces the food. And if he doesn't? It makes the paucity of offerings even more glaring, as it emphasizes all the food that's missing. Several of the menu items were never refilled while we were there. For all we know, they were never even offered that day. And many of the foods weren't viable options: they were hot dishes turned cold and fried foods now soggy. We found out the hard way, of course, and avoided all similar items.
Most of the rolls were on uncovered plates, but the supposed hot items like gyozas and spring rolls as well as most or all of the nigiri stuff were covered for heat retention, whether or not that worked out as intended, and freshness. IIRC, the other conveyor place didn't cover any of the foods. Here, though, were covers of were clear plastic which were hard to see through. I picked one up and held it up to the light to see if the haziness was built into the cover or the result of dishwasher etching and was dismayed to find something even worse: it had multiple, overlapping finger prints suggesting that the covers aren't cleaned between re-use and therefore offer you the opportunity to share germs with multiple prior customers and food handlers--an absolutely unforgiveable lapse of hygiene.
I love sushi. I love sitting at sushi bars. I love the ritual experience of dining slowly and watching my food made pristeenly fresh just for me. I also like talking to the chef and the communal experience of talking to the strangers we're next to. Therefore, conveyor belt sushi holds no particular appeal to me. But I get that it can work at peak hours in crowded locations, for the same reasons that dim sum was invented as a businessman's lunch.
Last night's meal exposed all the downsides. This isn't New York or even Seattle. This town isn't a dining town in the first place--Olive Garden's the most successful restaurant here, and numerous well-qualified attempts to lure the locals into more creative fine dining have failed. And furthermore, this town dines early, and when it can't it goes to McDonalds. So at 6:30 p.m. in a half full restaurant, there's a rapidly declining incentive for a conveyor belt restaurant to make new food that's only to be wasted. Which also means that after 6:00, say, there's a declining reason for a discerning diner to eat there.
Sure, you could custom order off the menu for food that would, ostensibly, be made fresh for you. But one reviewer of this restaurant on Trip Advisor (where there were only three reviews: one Excellent, two Terribles) said he noted the problem with the hot foods right away so custom-ordered everything he wanted to eat as a guarantee of maximum freshness. And what did the waitress do? She filled their order by pulling from the conveyor belt.
I'm guessing this restaurant's not going to make it. Even if the food is better than passably acceptable at peak hour, even the guy who's never going to hold one of those plastic covers up to the light will soon figure out that there's no point showing up unless a certain critical mass is also present.
And so it will be everywhere touched by this fad, if fad it is.
My wine shopping and I have never had a problem. Just a perpetual race between the bankruptcy court and Hell.--Rogov