Berkeley’s Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakaya creatively alters vision to match the times

SANDO CLAUSE: Yoshika Hedberg and chef Asuka Uchida changed up Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakaya’s menu early in the pandemic by adding sandwiches, which include ebi katsu. Credits: PHOTO COURTESY OF FISH & BIRD

Yoshika Hedberg says it’s really difficult to put Izakaya into takeaway boxes. “When we initially opened, we weren’t planning on doing bento,” she explains. But at the start of 2020, Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakaya’s soft opening lasted just six weeks before the restaurant temporarily closed. The current menu is a pronounced departure from the initial vision Hedberg, who co-owns the restaurant with chef Asuka Uchida, had when opening in downtown Berkeley.

Early in the pandemic, Hedberg was savvy enough to drive around different East Bay neighborhoods. She remembers seeing lines at pizza and burger places and decided they would have to modify the Izakaya’s menu. Gauging the changed landscape, Hedberg figured out that people wanted comfort food. “Asian people favor rice boxes, whereas Americans, or people who grew up in Western countries, tend to get burgers and sandwiches,” she says.

The new menu, for a new age, brings those rice and bread cultures together. In the place of delicately plated oysters or filet mignon, Fish & Bird now serves rice boxes with various proteins and sandos (i.e. Japanese sandwiches and burgers).

Before making these changes, an entire day of takeaway might have only tallied up to $250. That wasn’t going to sustain the restaurant. The takeaway business at Fish & Bird has improved since then, but outdoor dining—depending on the air quality—has been a boost.

“We also have home meal kits for nabe, or hot pot dishes,” Hedberg says. Uchida, with her sous chef Shin Okamoto, precut the meat and vegetables for customers to assemble and cook the ingredients at home.

Hedberg admits the menu is different from what they planned on, but she and the chefs had a pre-pandemic discussion about the possibility of making sandos and rice or noodle dishes at some point in the restaurant’s future. This pandemic interlude gave them a chance to try out new dishes while also maintaining an extensive bar program featuring sake, shochu and craft cocktails, which are all available to go. Additionally, they partnered with Minoru Miyazaki, a local Japanese pastry chef.

Pâtissier Minoru was a customer of chef Uchida’s when Uchida worked at B-Dama in Oakland. He and his wife subsequently became friends with the Fish & Bird team. They helped them open the restaurant in January. “When we were doing indoor dining, we were making a lot of ice cream,” Hedberg says. But ice cream doesn’t travel well in a to-go container. Minoru suggested he could bake a cake for them. It sold so well they’ve continued to order from him every week.

Although indoor dining has officially resumed in Alameda County, Fish & Bird is putting that option on hold for now. “This is a chef-driven restaurant and if my chefs get sick, this business isn’t relevant,” Hedberg says. They’re in the middle of an ongoing process, weighing what’s most important: their personal health or the future of the business. Just as she did at the start of the pandemic, Hedberg has decided to watch what happens at other restaurants—in case indoor dining causes a Covid-19 surge in the Bay Area.

Hedberg notes that when the restaurant opened, most of their customers were older. That entire demographic has disappeared since March and won’t likely return anytime soon. She believes older customers are being careful to protect themselves by staying in. “It’s great to get younger customers, too, but we do miss them,” Hedberg says. And at 25 percent capacity—the county limit on indoor dining—Fish & Bird can only seat 20 people. The risk doesn’t feel worth the reward at this point.

“We have sanitizer everywhere, on all the tables, and paper towel dispensers,” Hedberg says. “We wear masks and have face shields.” But that doesn’t mean the customer-facing wait staff is immune from transmission. There are unspoken but not explicit or agreed upon rules of etiquette for dining out during Covid-19. The obvious example is when to take off and put back on your mask. Is between bites too extreme? Or every time a server returns to the table? For now, takeaway still seems like the less stressful choice when we’re all craving comfort food and Minoru’s Basque cheesecakes.

Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakaya, open 4:30–9pm Monday, Thursday and Friday, noon to 9pm Saturday and Sunday. 2451 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. 510.705.1539.