BUCKTOWN — Japanese restaurant and sake bar Izakaya Mita will open for in-person dining for the first time since March 2020 on Friday.
The Bucktown restaurant at 1960 N. Damen Ave. offers an extensive sake menu and what owner Brian Mita calls “Japanese tapas,” including items such as yakitori and yaki soba.
The reopening will feature new decor and an updated menu, which Mita hopes to expand in coming months.
“It feels really good. I think the neighborhood’s ready for us,” said Mita, who is also the restaurant’s executive chef.
Mita opened Izakaya Mita in 2014 with his mother, Helen, as a tribute to his father, Shiyouji, who was a manager at a suburban Japanese steakhouse for many years.
The restaurant was having one of its best starts to the year ever in 2020, as it was featured on WTTW’s “Check Please” program. Before the pandemic hit, business was up 40 percent in January and February compared with the first two months of 2019, Helen Mita said.
But when coronavirus came and restaurants had to stop in-person service, Izakaya Mita struggled to transition to takeout-only service. The staff officially stopped to-go orders at the end of June 2020.
“Anywhere you have a large beverage program, and especially because we have an eclectic beverage program, you just can’t do it without people being here. That’s why we made that decision,” Brian Mita said.
That was almost a breaking point for the business, Helen Mita said.
“At the end of June, I was just gonna close,” she said. Her son talked her out of it. “He found money for us to keep it open.”
The Mitas applied for loans and grants through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which helped them stay afloat.
But last summer, the family found themselves facing another challenge. Brian Mita’s colon cancer had metastasized from Stage 3 to Stage 4.
“I was on this really easy treatment for a while. I thought opening up would be great. But then the cancer started growing on me. So they switched me to a new one, which is … pretty gnarly,” he said.
Mita is taking a step back from day-to-day operations, relying on his general manager and chef de cuisine and doing what he can during treatment.
He said focusing on the reopening has kept him going in recent months.
One big menu change is that Izakaya Mita will no longer offer broth ramen.
“We did it originally because our original chef had a ramen shop and there weren’t many ramen shops back then. And now they’re everywhere,” he said. “In order for me to do ramen the way I want to do it, I need another burner. And I just don’t have the space for that.”
Like many other restaurants, the Mitas are dealing with staffing and supply chain issues. But overall, they’re thrilled to finally open their doors again.
“It’s just nice to be kind of identified with this neighborhood, and just be one of those neighborhoods spots that a lot of people don’t know about. [When] you come in our goal is for you to be like, ‘This place is the gem,’” Brian Mita said.
Izakaya Mita will be open 5-10 p.m. this Friday and Saturday. It may expand days of operation starting next week, depending on staffing levels.
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