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Among Friends : Patrons Robbed at Sushi Bar Have Found the Tie That Binds in the Big City

April 18, 1993|JEFF KRAMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEVERLY-FAIRFAX — Held up at gunpoint and robbed of their wallets, the patrons of the sushi bar near the Beverly Center had every reason to go home and never come back.

Instead, the small group of virtual strangers decided to make a point of supporting the bar's owner by patronizing his establishment every week.

A year-and-a-half later, the group, galvanized by a night of terror, is still showing up every Wednesday night, the happy byproduct being that they have all become the best of friends.

They celebrate each other's birthdays, confide their innermost thoughts. Depending on how much is read into their cryptic remarks and knowing smirks, some may have even explored romantic interests.

At the very least, they provide each other with comfort, companionship and consistency, rare commodities in big, bad Los Angeles.

"There's so little you can do in L.A., because everything's so impersonal," said Mark Stimson, who does special effects for television's "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

For all the good times, memories of the robbery at the Japon restaurant, on 3rd Street near La Cienega Boulevard, remain vivid for Stimson and others who were there.

Starting at opposite ends of the crescent-shaped sushi bar, two robbers worked their way methodically toward the center, poking customers in the ribs with their guns and quietly demanding their wallets.

The gunmen were so low-key that several of the victims say it was hard to tell at first that a robbery was in progress.

That was until longtime customer Philip Reavis bolted for the door.

Reavis, a friend of the bar's owner, Kogi Kimura, figured he could run to his nearby home, fetch his gun and return to defend the sushi bar he has patronized for years.

"It was like someone was in my house," Reavis recalled. "It was a real violation. I wanted them out of here."

Reavis was lucky. As he fled out the doorway, one of the robbers fired and narrowly missed him. By the time he returned with his own weapon, the pair had vanished, taking almost everyone's billfolds with them.

"We all sat here with our mouths open and our wallets gone, going, 'What happened?' " Stimson said.

Police arrived later, conducted interviews and left. The next logical step would have been for the patrons to bid Japon a hasty farewell and go their separate ways.

But they didn't.

Stunned and ridden with remorse over the incident, Kimura served up free drinks to the customers and even repaid some of the money stolen from those who could not afford the loss.

By 3 a.m., a full five hours after the robbery, everyone was still there, talking about what had happened and growing closer by the minute.

"We'd all seen each other in here all the time," Stimson said. "We all sort of casually knew each other, but after that night, we became close friends."

Eager to reassure Kimura that he would not lose business as a result of the robbery, the group resolved to return weekly.

Now, every Wednesday about 8 p.m., the group of wisecracking professionals starts filtering into Japon to eat what they consider the best sushi in L.A., catch up on the latest news, unwind and have fun.

Along with Stimson, there's Durward Davis, who designs the food pictured in ads for Ralphs markets, and John Vester, a singer/songwriter who teaches guitar at a music shop next door.

There's Tony Taguchi, an audio exporter, Harumi Hoshino, a student. Reavis is an industrial real estate broker.

A few patrons who were not present during the robbery but have cottoned up to the original group, raises the membership to about 15. At every opportunity, they liken Japon and its corps of regulars to "Cheers," the cozy Boston bar of television fame.

"It's hard to find that in a city like this--to find someone who remembers this week what you said last week," said Kristen Laskaris, a lawyer.

Like most groups, this one has its own code of conduct. Anyone who fails to show for several weeks can count on an inquiring phone call from Japon. If a stranger sits down between two members, the group will sometimes offer to buy him some sake if he'll agree to move elsewhere.

The robbery is rarely discussed anymore, and when it is, it is euphemistically referred to as "the incident" so as not to alarm Kimura's other customers.

Members of the group also rush to help translate whenever customers have trouble understanding the halting English spoken by waitress/cashier Mitsue Kobayashi.

Just how protective the group is of Kimura and Japon was on display Wednesday night when Vester, the singer/songwriter, warned a reporter several times that Kimura did not want any publicity about the robbery or its aftermath.

Only after Kimura assured Vester several times that he wouldn't mind a story, did Vester relax and allow the interview to proceed.

Later, during a rare break, Kimura explained that although he had been fearful of bad publicity following the robbery, he now thought it might be a good idea to spread the word about the unlikely friendships it had produced.

"This story," he said, "helps people."

At that, he went back to work, and the group broke open a bottle of champagne to celebrate Durward Davis' new job.

"The incident has brought out the best in us," Davis said.

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