A requiem for Futami Restaurant

A boulevard of broken restaurant dreams unfurls while driving down this stretch of south Sacramento.

In this case it’s Freeport Boulevard, between Florin Road and Sutterville Road, where a once thriving A&W was torched by an arsonist in 2006 and remains a sullen, fenced off lot ... Where the Zombie Hut served Hawaiian food and giant cockatils served “Fantasy Island” style in hollowed out pineapples ... where the memory of a plane crashing into Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour in 1972 still makes Sacramentans shudder ... where generations feasted on chicken and rib platters at El Chico’s.

And now we say farewell to Futami Japanese Restaurant, which has closed and will emerge as a Chinese hot pot restaurant with new owners.

Futami was a home for family-style Japanese foods for more than three decades - before teriyaki to-go eateries were a function of just about every strip mall, and well before Japanese food in Sacramento meant a three-page menu of baked, mayonaise drenched sushi rolls. Futami mostly stuck to the basics: lightly battered tempura, teriyaki, bento boxes, no-frills sashimi.

In better days, you’d walk in and hear lilting koto music over the sound system, smell the beef teriyaki sizzling in the kitchen and hope for a spot in the tatami room for a traditional bit of sit-down dining.

But over the last few years it was obvious that Futami’s business was floundering. The koto music was long gone, replaced by a near silent dining experience. The lights were kept especially dim, and the room felt overly stuffy on warm days. It was apparent the owners were cutting corners to save money. Business was down, badly. In too many visits over the last couple years I never saw another table occupied when we were there.

Futami remained old-school while the masses wanted splashy sushi rolls to go with their apple sake-tini cocktail. Other casual Japanese restaurants opened farther north on Freeport, but Futami could never quite compete.

Still, I kept coming back. Certain restaurants just have that kind of pull, because sentimentality often trumps whatever modern gastronomy might be in vogue at the moment. I’d take my son to Futami, sit with him in the tatami room over bento boxes, tell him how much I loved coming here as a kid with his grandparents and Uncle Pat. I’d tell him how the pork teriyaki came from the kitchen on a sizzling cast-iron pan with steam reaching the ceiling. I’d tell him about family birthday dinners at Futami, how Uncle Pat would always make the waitresses laugh, and how we’d always leave with a box of Marukawa gum or Botan Rice Candy purchased at the counter.

My son decided he wanted to have his 9th birthday party in Futami’s tatami room. About a dozen of us dined, family and friends, and feasted with our shoes left at the front of the room per Japanese custom.

Now, with Futami shuttered, we’re having a teachable moment that most things in life don’t last forever, especially restaurants.

But we still have plenty of options for Japanese food a little farther north on Freeport Boulevard, including some of the best ramen in town at Akebono, the sweet baked goodness that is Mahoroba Japanese Bakery, plus the casual but consistent Sushi Cafe.

At some point, we’ll even have to pop into the hot pot restaurant that’s replacing Futami. This new spot may end up holding the same kind of memories for others as it did for my family with Futami.

Either way, we’ll always remember the good times - and the happy stomachs - when we pass by this aging strip mall.

Have any favorite memories from a Sacramento area restaurant that’s no longer with us? Send an e-mail and we’ll run some of our favorites in a future Appetizers post.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee